In his recent State of the City speech, Mayor Michael O’Connor acknowledged the reality of the current political climate in the city of Frederick: He and his administration are on the spot.
As O’Connor looks toward 2020, he must make two hires that will likely define the rest of his first term as mayor, and that may decide his fate when and if he stands for re-election in 2021.
He must fill two of the more important positions in this or any city: a new police chief and a director to run the newly created Department of Housing and Human Services.
Why? First, the police department is the city agency that most determines how safe residents of the city feel. Right now, the city has a perception problem. People feel less safe, especially when walking the streets of the historic downtown.
That is a serious issue, even though crime statistics do not support the perception. Overall, serious crime in the city is down. In fact, O’Connor said in his speech, the city’s crime statistics are the lowest they’ve been in 20 years.
But widely publicized shootings and stabbings in the downtown area over the summer have seized the public’s attention. The mayor conceded that “crime statistics do not equate to the feeling of safety.”
O’Connor said his administration and the police department are discussing several steps aimed at increasing police visibility and presence to make certain that residents and visitors feel safe.
The leadership of the new chief will be crucial in directing this evolutionary change in the police department, and in reassuring people that Frederick is a safe city.
The second reason these two hires loom so large is connected to the problem of homelessness, especially on Carroll Creek Linear Park and most especially during the warm-weather months. The presence of large numbers of homeless people has a major impact on the perception that the city is not as safe as it once was.
That is where the other new hire comes in. O’Connor took a big step in 2019, forcing out the longtime head of the Frederick Community Action Agency, which ran the city’s programs offering human services, including for the homeless.
Residents and business owners on the near south side of downtown and along Carroll Creek were complaining about the number of homeless people in the neighborhood. Addressing those complaints will be one of the first responsibilities of the new department head.
The new agency will combine the FCAA’s programs and the Community Development Block Grant program for housing. The mayor has not announced it as a goal, but it is obvious he is counting on the new director to reduce the homeless population downtown.
After his speech, O’Connor told News-Post reporter Ryan Marshall that combining the two departments will provide a chance to re-evaluate the programs the FCAA has run for more than 30 years.
“It’s a fine line between radical change and a re-tweaking of the status quo,” O’Connor said. Actually, that is not literally true; there is a wide gap between radical change and a minor tweak. But we take the mayor’s meaning. He wants to consider big changes without giving up on programs that are working well.
As with the police department changes, the decisions that his two hand-picked staffers make in the coming year will reflect on the performance of the mayor, for good or bad.
Does the perception of crime recede? Does the homeless problem improve? That is why these hires are so important for the city and its residents, and for the future of Mayor O’Connor. He really needs to get this right.