Rule No. 1 for any journalist reads as such: While covering city government, if a council member or alderperson or mayor or any subsequent city official uses the phrase “I’m pissed off” at any meeting at any time, grab your notepad and perk up.
Suffice to say, then, that I had to reach deep into such a book Wednesday afternoon as the mayor and Board of Aldermen workshop commenced at City Hall. About 35 minutes into the meeting, the group was discussing revisions to the city’s adequate public facilities ordinance, otherwise known as its APFO.
The dialogue began with a conversation about roads and expanded into something called a mobility fee, which, in short, is something developers could pay to help support more than just your typical roads — i.e., bike trails and the like — whenever they decide to develop. The idea of adding a mobility fee to the city’s APFO was first broached back in March, and from what I understand, it had support among those on the board.
Well, the subject came up again at Wednesday’s workshop and Alderman Ben MacShane ... wait. I’ll just let the tape take it from here.
“As a resident on behalf of the residents, I’m pissed off,” MacShane said, accentuating the letter P. “That we are having this type of abstract brain conversation 10 months after the first APFO workshop, after eight workshops, and we’re talking about the same ideas and concepts as we were before. Now, we’re stuck trying to come up with interim and stopgap solutions. I don’t understand.
“The public deserves an apology from the city,” he continued, “for taking their consideration so lightly. You all here deserve an apology. I think it’s unimaginable that you go through your jobs this adrift and directionless, policy-wise.”
After a few minutes, MacShane noted that he wanted to move forward with the mobility fee option, among other things, including hiring a consultant to designate what best practices should be for a “growing, rapidly expanding, attractive city in this kind of market.”
“If we need to have somebody from the outside provide policy direction for you,” he then added to the city officials in front of him, “that sounds fantastic, but that’s what we need to do.”
A few contentious exchanges with Alderwoman Kelly Russell and a handful of awkward, longer-than-you-want-them-to-be silences later, Mayor Michael O’Connor asserted his appreciation for city government staff despite MacShane arguing that the staff has not received adequate direction from leadership.
And then boom went the dynamite.
“Mayor O’Connor, I believe that it is on you, as the executive of the city, to provide the overwhelming amount of policy direction to this staff,” MacShane said. “Not to reference the Board of Aldermen. This is, in our city, a strong mayoral system. If they are not getting policy direction, that rests with the mayor’s office.”
“Ah, I disagree,” O’Connor rebutted.
“It’s very clear you disagree,” MacShane asserted. “And I think you’re wrong.”
“And I might agree that you’re wrong also,” the mayor argued. “The policy direction for the city of Frederick comes from the Board of Aldermen. When a consensus emerges from the Board of Aldermen at a direction you wish to pursue on something, I do my best to provide the staff as clear direction as possible.
“I would be challenged,” O’Connor eventually concluded, “to come out of all our conversations with a clear sense of where the Board of Aldermen wants the staff to go on this.”
“I think that’s ridiculous,” MacShane quickly declared.
“You’re entitled to think it’s ridiculous. I’m going to go back and actually watch the meetings and find out,” the mayor maintained.
“I think it’s ridiculous to assert that overall policy direction for our city of 70,000-plus people comes from the part-time city council and that the mayor is just waiting for that direction,” MacShane said before O’Connor began to talk over him.
“That’s not what I said,” he began. “If that’s what you think I said, then you’re not listening very carefully, which is a frustrating situation for me.”
And then boom went the dynamite. Again.
“You vote on whether or not we change the APFO; I don’t do that,” O’Connor said. “Your thought about your role as a part-time Board of Aldermen is incredibly insulting to everyone who’s ever sat in that chair and done that job.”
“I’m insulted,” he continued, becoming increasingly animated. “I’m insulted having spent eight years in that chair that you feel so little about what your role is in this process.”
“I think it’s insulting to the public,” MacShane volleyed, “that these five, as I put it, part-time elected officials are expected to provide the policy direction ...
“Did ya know what the job was when you ran for it?” the mayor then asked derisively, cutting MacShane off.
The interruption didn’t sway MacShane, though, as the alderman persisted forward with his rebuttal. As for what he said ... well, you can look it up on the city’s website if you so desire. All I’ll say is that at one point, Alderwoman Russell posed the option of taking a 10-minute break to cool down.
The mayor declined.
It was a total of 22:48 that passed between MacShane’s “pissed off” proclamation and Russell’s suggestion to take a recess. The board never really seemed to get back on track after the flare-up, even though the workshop lasted an hour and 15 minutes more.
Still, the scene raised a bunch of questions, most notably regarding best practices when it comes to the government’s use of time. It’s not unreasonable to wonder what could have been accomplished in that amount of time had cooler heads prevailed. Because even if you throw out the 23 minutes of actual bickering, it’s almost impossible to measure the residual effect it had on the rest of the meeting.
For those who subscribe to the “all’s well that ends well” maxim, it should be noted that Mayor O’Connor and Alderman MacShane spoke later that evening, according to the latter, and hashed out some differences.
“We are both committed to finding positive, productive ways to move forward,” MacShane said Friday.