The recent dust-up between Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor and Alderman Ben MacShane was viewed with alarm by some city residents. Me? I think it’s a reflection of a healthy governing process.
Don’t get me wrong. Naturally, like most citizens, I’d prefer civility between our elected officials at all times. But civility doesn’t necessarily rule out strident or passionate voices; incivility has more to do with impugning another’s motives or manner instead of focusing on policy differences.
But the topic was fundamental — the respective roles and relative importance of the mayor and Board of Aldermen in carrying out municipal functions and in setting both short-term and long-term policy.
The only thing worse than occasional loud discussions about these questions would be prolonged silence from City Hall. In our form of municipal government, where the mayor effectively operates as city manager in addition to drafting budgets and other policies, we shouldn’t expect the mayor and aldermen to be unanimous in their thinking, despite the fact that all six elected officials wear the same political stripes.
We are well-served by the mix of the seasoned third- and fourth-termers, Kelly Russell and Donna Kuzemchak, respectively, and the newbies, Derek Shackelford, Ben “let’s-rally-for-the-cause” MacShane, and Roger “what-do-I-run-for-next?” Wilson. Some may view mayoral ambitions in aldermen as inherently troublesome, but aldermanic high hopes are hardly new. Ambition can be worthwhile if channeled positively.
I’ve heard a number of O’Connor supporters who are prematurely critical of his mayoralty, bellyaching that he lacks a signature issue or accomplishment, or that his agenda lacks urgency.
But O’Connor is a Frederick native and was a longtime, thoughtful observer of local politics before he entered the elected-political fray. His three city-wide elections by wide margins are not accidents. Despite its Democratic plurality registration, the city is conservative in its outlook and dealings. Anyone thinking O’Connor would bring an overly aggressive or radical agenda to City Hall wasn’t paying attention to his campaign in 2017.
O’Connor has a good read on the city, and his strategic planning process, though criticized as slow by some, is well-executed. He’s not two years into his term, so I’m prepared to watch and wait for some time to come before giving him excessive grief. O’Connor’s deliberate nature is a good thing; quick decisions are often regretted later.
The question of executive vs. legislative power is also being considered at the Frederick County government level by the charter review commission. The News-Post has bizarrely editorialized in favor of postponing any charter changes for 10 years. Balderdash! Our experience should dictate the pace and manner of change — not some arbitrary passage of time. What the charter drafting board thought was required for voter approval of the charter in 2012 may be wholly different from what’s necessary for the charter to work effectively in 2019 and beyond. I want a charter that works well whether a Jan Gardner or a Blaine Young is county executive.
I’m also amazed at The News-Post’s editorial statement that “Writing a budget is quintessentially an executive function.” Tell that to the U.S. Congress and the Maryland General Assembly!
I disagree with both state and county restrictions that prohibit our legislative bodies from increasing a governor’s or executive’s proposed budget. Not long ago, our county commissioners held public school teachers and law enforcement and emergency personnel without raises for three years, causing long-term damage.
Would a charter change to allow budget increases create chaos? No, it will require decision-making. Not all will agree with me, but this change, among many others, is certainly worth a full discussion by the charter review commission.
But let the tension persist and the fights go on! Americans voters are skilled at creating divided government. (Can you say Larry Hogan?). Presidents of one party. Congresses of another (or split, as at present). For many moons, city voters have elected Republican mayors and Democratic boards of aldermen.
Politics and policies wax and wane. We tinker and perfect, then tinker and perfect some more. That process is democracy’s greatest annoyance — and perhaps its greatest strength.
Don DeArmon is an award-winning writer, author, lecturer and consultant who worked in government for 34 years. He writes from Frederick. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.