On the night of Nov. 7, 2017, Michael O’Connor bested Randy McClement in the battle for Frederick’s mayorship. McClement had held the office for two terms prior to O’Connor’s victory, and as the winner was announced, O’Connor almost immediately looked toward what he could get done in his upcoming term.
“We’ve tried to run a campaign that was focused on ideas, aspiring to be something,” O’Connor said that night. “I think we’ve seen over the last year it’s not enough to just be against things. You have to be for something.”
So, how has being "for something" turned out, now that O’Connor, who has stated his plans to run for re-election in 2021, is halfway through his first term as Frederick’s mayor?
The Frederick News-Post sat down with him to discuss his first two years in office, touching on a wide range of topics such as the city budget, his relationship with the Board of Aldermen, and the public backlash he received after introducing a new logo for Frederick, an issue about which he now says he’s able to joke after absorbing months of criticism for it.
“I’d give myself a solid B, maybe a B-plus,” he said while summing up his first two years in office.
So, how does that get to an A?
“I think we have to step up our engagement level,” he offered. “There’s more that we can do in terms of engagement with the community. We have to get some of these big projects that have been sitting there in the ground. I think people want to see obvious action. We’ve done a lot of things behind the scenes that I think have made the function of government in the city of Frederick better than it was on the day I came into office, but a lot of that stuff isn’t visible to the community."
Let’s go back to election night when you won. When you said that you have to be “for something.” Is that something you still believe in? To you, are things still only for the city of Frederick and how much has that morphed over your tenure?
Absolutely. I go back to that election, and it was a very conscious effort in 2017 to talk about the future, our vision, strategic plans, and things we could do to make it a more inclusive city. We have a number of things we’ve done to speak to those things. At the end of the day, we’re going to bear the criticism regardless, so at least let’s get criticized for trying to do things.
One thing that’s “for Frederick,” some would say, is the downtown hotel. When you were running for office, you consistently discussed taking a proactive role in the hotel project and addressing downtown blight. Two years in, what’s the difference between then and now? Do you feel you’ve made progress on those two things?
I think we have taken a more proactive approach to reach out to members of our delegation to see the value of this project. We had some success — we now have all of District 3 behind the project. All [of] District 4 continues to be opposed to it. What I’ve come to understand is that I don’t control that. We’ve also come to the conclusion that we don’t control the governor and ultimately, it’s the governor’s decision to let the funding that’s been approved by the General Assembly flow to this project. If he’s unwilling to do that, then we have to do other things. So we’re working to find another path. While there’s been no outward activity where there’s shovels in the ground, it’s important to know that behind the scenes, we are meeting regularly to determine a way to allow this project to move forward. It’s our goal to have this be a self-contained, funded enterprise.
In the next two years, where do you see the project going?
We’re running up against deadlines now. There are approvals in place that are going to expire. We have level 1 HPC approval that expires in the spring of 2021. The last thing we want is to have to do anything that would restart this project at any time. So, we’re operating under deadlines.
Do you think that’s a good thing? Does the pressure help?
From my perspective, we’ve stepped up our intensity in terms of trying to keep this project moving forward. We took more time than we should have to try and convince members of our delegation or the governor that this was something they should be a partner with us in. That cost us time because we’re trying to do it the best way. But not being able to do it the best way doesn’t still mean we can’t do it a good way.
Going back to before you were elected, you listed three budgeting priorities were you to be elected into office. They were goal-based budgeting, infrastructure investments and human capital. When it comes to your budget priorities today, halfway through your term, are those three things still in the mix?
Those are still the priorities. In terms of goal-based budgeting, I may not use that term anymore, but the work we did on the strategic plan was to set a vision and goals for the city and then use the action portion of the initiative to drive our budget decisions. That entire process is very much about an outcome- or goal-based process.
Infrastructure — West Side Regional Park. The movement we made on beginning to put that road in, we hope that with the MOUs we’ve signed … I’m hopeful we’ll be able to make some announcements in the next couple months relative to that park. The road is going to be open in 2020. We’re working to accomplish what’s been a 10-year goal, which is a new headquarters facility for the police department. These are important projects, so infrastructure remains. I’m not sure when I answered that question then that I was envisioning me having a conversation about some of those things two years later — I didn’t think I’d be having a conversation about stormwater, but when the floods hit in 2018, I was six months in and we made a commitment that we could not just wait to take action relative to the long term. The work that we’ve done with the Army Corps on the modeling and what will come in 2020 to look at ways to make stormwater improvements, this is critical to the long-term success of the city of Frederick.
Human capital is about our people. The work that gets done every day is done by people. These are the people who collect payments, clean the streets and pick up trash. Our commitment to the diversity program and enhancing training opportunities for our employees … those are really important things we’re working on.
You also said while running for election that you would work on strategies for poverty elimination so everyone in Frederick has a safe and affordable place to live. A lot of people would argue that Frederick has a long way to go with its affordable housing issues. What progress do you think you have seen on that in your first two years?
It has not come as far as I think I would have hoped it would come by now. That’s in part because I think it’s a really challenging problem. One of the benefits of being in a community that’s vibrant is that all the pressure on property values is up. That makes it difficult for our residents who are living on that edge of affordability. Over the next two years, it’s a critical area of focus and attention. This is a community that ought to be able to deliver on that promise for all its residents. With some changes that we’re going to be bringing forward relative to the Community Action Agency is how we can better engage our partners working in this sphere to take a more holistic approach to these issues. We need to build those connections and make them more visible to the community.
In terms of projects aimed at helping with affordable housing, there’s the Rollins Funeral Home …
There’s a senior housing component to that and there’s a family housing component for that. It’s not a subsidized product, but a product that’s geared towards meeting a gap in that affordability continuum. Trying to find and build apartments that are in a rent target that right now the market just doesn’t support. There has been conversation between members of the Board of Aldermen regarding information we received from the affordable housing council regarding how we step up our conversations relative to this area.
What are those conversations? Can you talk about what went into them?
In the budget, we talked about the affordable housing reserve fund. We’re far enough into the budget year where we need to have meaningful conversations about how we program that money. There have been a lot of ideas flying around. I’m looking forward to a more focused conversation on how to use some of the money, but that’s part of a broader conversation. Solving affordable housing is not going to be a program. We’re not going to invent a program tomorrow to find something that will resolve this in the city of Frederick. It’s going to be done a project at a time. That’s the approach we have to take. We have do it creatively and we have to be innovative.
Speaking of conversations, you said at your swearing-in ceremony that it was going to be tough to get used to not voting. How has that gone?
Well, I’ve actually had to vote more than I thought I was going to have to, so it hasn’t been as tough as I thought it was going to be. It’s a different role to be on this side of the building. You listen to the testimony in a slightly different way. I’m not listening now with an eye toward “Am I going to support this?” I’m listening with an eye toward “What am I going to need to do from an executive side to administer whatever it is that gets approved?” You listen to the public in a very different way — not how they might persuade the vote, but to see if there’s something that comes out of the testimony that provides another opportunity to take an idea from the community and implement it in some other way.
Do you miss it?
I don’t miss the voting authority. I very much enjoyed being a member of the Board of Aldermen. My time on the board, I found to be very collegial. There is a camaraderie that exists when you’re one of the five involved in debates and voting on things. When you’re over here, that camaraderie doesn’t exist in the same way. If I miss something, I miss that component.
That’s a good segue to what I had next. In a story about you gearing up to take office, you said you were “terribly excited” about working with the board and that it’s “not just a highly diverse group, but are exceptionally gifted thinkers and doers and I’m just excited about what we can accomplish together.” How would you categorize your relationship with the board? Have you worked together as much as you would have preferred?
I think it’s a good working relationship. Three of the five of them didn’t have previous Board of Aldermen experience. There’s a different learning curve for them in terms of their job and their relationship with the mayor’s office. That just takes times to work through. That was true of me when I was a member of the board. The conversations that this board has, you can see the level of engagement. You can see the voice of community coming through in those conversations. This really is a diverse and representative group of individuals. It is naturally adversarial, not in the sense of us vs. them, but we have different roles in the process. For me, defining and understanding those roles from both sides has been the piece that has required more attention than I thought it would. I thought I knew what this job was when I was sitting over there. I didn’t. Now, it’s just working through the process.
When you initially talked about your agenda after getting elected, one of the key areas you said you needed to focus on was community engagement. In your first two years, you found yourself in a situation regarding the city’s logo, where you were criticized for not providing enough community engagement in the wake of that. We’re some months removed now; is there anything you would have changed about it? Do you still think about it?
I still think about it. I’m able to joke about it now. We did not communicate better what the objective behind the exercise was. The logo was one small piece of a larger conversation about branding in the city of Frederick. ... That process started with one-on-one engagement with more than 100 residents and leaders in our community. The value of that engagement has informed the strategic plan and the comprehensive plan, so the value of the exercise from my perspective has been extraordinarily important. That’s been lost to the community because all of the focus at the end of the day was about this one piece of the branding effort. In hindsight, trying to develop a new logo was icing on the cake relative to the objective behind the branding effort. The community told us pretty loudly that it was not a piece that needed to be improved upon. The logo took on a life of its own. I don’t know how I would go back now to fix that if I could. The level of public engagement that we had up until that point wasn’t sufficient for that specific piece. Lesson learned. It’s not something we have any intention of revisiting anytime soon.
You said you could joke about it now. At what point did you get there?
I don’t think there was a day that I just woke up and … I think that once we made the decision that we were not going to let this one thing be something to distract from the larger objective … once you come to the realization that it’s not worth fighting for that one thing and the realization that this community really does care, it becomes how do we have better engagement with the community on the much more meaningful work we do.
When you were running in the general election, it was written that you and former Mayor McClement had a good working relationship. Have you spoken with him to get some advice since you took office?
I’ve had less than a handful of conversations with him since being elected, and I think that’s out of respect. If I were not in this office and someone called me who had beaten me for the job, what role would I want to play? I would want them to know I was available but not expect them to reach out to me.
Earlier, you alluded to maybe being wrong about some things when you first came into this job, and how you didn’t quite know what the job was, compared to being an alderman. Two years into your term, what has surprised you the most?
I’d say it’s less about being wrong about something; it’s about not understanding the level and scope of this position’s engagement with all aspects of the organization. What has surprised me is the depth of understanding I need to have every day about what’s going on in a lot of different things in the city. My perception was, that’s what you have directors for, but it’s important that the employees know the mayor’s office is receptive and accessible. They want the input from the mayor’s office. The employees want the relationship to be there. What that means is that almost everything that happens — and I’m not a micromanager by nature — requires a working knowledge about what’s going on. Our city is of a size that our employees and residents expect that one-on-one interaction with the mayor and as a result, my calendar is pretty crowded, and I’m OK with that.
Homelessness and blight are obviously two other big issues in town. In your mind, have you seen progress in these first two years?
With blight, we’ve done some things better defining what long-term vacancies look like. There aren’t an enormous number of these, but the ones we do have, we have to be focused in how we address those. Slowly but surely, we’re beginning to see some longtime vacant properties begin to get occupancy. We also have some that continue to frustrate me, which is why we took the time to define what long-term vacancy is.
On the homelessness issue, the challenges that any urban community experiences run the spectrum. That includes folks who are unhoused and underhoused. There are mental health issues and substance abuse disorder. Our response to each of those things has to be a little bit different. The data suggests the problem isn’t worse today than it was a year ago or two years ago or even five or 10 years ago. None of that matters in terms in how we communicate with the community. That’s a conversation that I’m committed to changing so we can have a more productive conversation to resolve community concerns.
Along those lines, I have to ask about the Community Action Agency. A lot has been made of what you have as a vision for its future. Can you talk about that?
It’s still something in progress. What I’ve heard from the community and advocates working in the human services realm is how do we undertake an evaluation of the services that we provide, who our clients are that need those services, what is the appropriate structure and location for those services to be provided. That’s a process that we’re going to go through as we go through this transition at the Community Action Agency. We want to have a more intentional conversation about what we want the service delivery system to look like and what is the best way for it to be done.
What do you think is your biggest success and what do you think is your biggest failure so far?
I’m very pleased with what we did with the strategic planning process. I talked about it in three campaigns — the first two as alderman and the third as mayor. My personal involvement in it has been almost 20 years in the making so it’s very gratifying and I owe a lot of credit to what [Chief Administrative Officer] Mark DeOcampo has done. The other thing I’m really proud of is I think we’ve built a really diverse mayor’s office. The work that Gayon Sampson has done has really opened up our opportunities to reach new communities. Younger people. People of color. How we engage those who have historically been marginalized in the process, I think, is really valuable.
The regret is that the big things take time. You have four years and the public is not patient, the Board of Aldermen is not patient, I am not patient. When you’re trying to talk about the big things you want to do, to get a shovel in the ground, they are big decisions, they are important decisions, but they just take time. It’s a regret that we can’t do more faster.
Do you think you’ve changed?
I’d be the wrong person to ask. You’d have to talk to my wife about that and I think she’d tell you I have changed. I’m much more introspective when it comes to what happens every day in the city of Frederick. I spend a lot of time when I go home at the end of the day thinking about what happened today and thinking about what’s going to happen tomorrow because I’m responsible, in the most simplest of terms, for all of it. I’ve always been a thoughtful person, and I think that can be problematic at times because sometimes what you need to do is act. You don’t need to think, you need to do things, and that works against type for me. I’m mayor all the time, but I don’t need to be in mayor mode 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Finally, what’s your biggest priority for the second half of your term?
The biggest thing is the transition we’re going through for the Community Action Agency and the services we deliver to the people we serve. What’s going to come out of the comprehensive planning process and what the next steps are. And, of course, the budget. We’re starting that process now and it drives nearly everything we do.