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bob maginnis - 4/1/01

March 30, 2001

The race for mayor: Why it does matter



By Bob Maginnis


Is the race for the Hagerstown mayor's office really worth worrying about?

Someone asks me that question every four years, pointing out that Hagerstown's city charter gives the city a "weak mayor" form of government, and that with a paid administrator, the mayor's $28,000 salary is a lot of money for what is really a part-time job.

Critrics say the only reason it became a full-time job under Steve Sager and Don Frush before him is because those guys decided to make a meal out what really should be a quick snack, politically speaking.

The best counter to that argument is that in government, there are few quick snacks. Consider the sewer agreement concluded in February 1999 by the city and the Washington County government. It will not only allow the two systems to work together, but will let them accumulate funds to do similar projects in the future.

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The pact followed a disastrous meeting a year earlier in which a city councilman, confronted with multiple proposals for cooperation, decided that there was really no need for any change at all.

The project was eventually put back on track, but not without many meetings in which the two governments agreed to trust one another and not only crafted an agreement, but also a high-tech presentation to sell it to city and county officials.

All that effort, for a project that will mean little in the short term to the average voter. And yet it's very important for the long term. And if someone doesn't attend such meetings, then perhaps staff only pays attention to what happens in the short term, which seems to be how the county government ran up a $50 million-plus sewer debt.

Beyond those meetings, the mayor is also called to meet with economic-development prospects, who, as someone in economic development once told me, don't look at the city charter before they come calling. They want to see the head guy, who'd better be more than a ceremonial official if he wants to make the sale.

The mayor must also make time to go to Annapolis during the Maryland General Assembly session. In 1999, some members of the local delegation told me progress on local issues was being hindered because some local governments were sending staff people to the state capital.

The problem, state lawmakers told me, was that those staff members were giving elected officials back home an overly rosy picture of what was happening to local proposals. All politics is personal, they say, and because local elected officials weren't showing up in person, their interests were being harmed.

And then there are the mayor's purely ceremonial duties. Every time a new business opens, or charity begins its annual fund drive or when someone breaks ground for a new building inside the city limits, the mayor is expected to be there, not only to cut the ribbon or hoist the first shovelful of dirt, but to make a few inspirational comments as well.

The mayor who blows these events off is seen as uncaring, unless he or she has a good excuse, like a broken leg or worse. Mayors are also expected to endure impromptu encounters with citizens who decide that even if the city's chief executive is in the middle of a restaurant meal with the family, that's the ideal time to provide input on how city government should run.

Is that enough? No, it isn't. The real power any mayor has is not what's specified in the city charter, although one of the duties listed there for the city's top elected official is to make sure staff is carrying out the council's directives.

No, the mayor's real power comes from the quality of the ideas he or she has, and the personal touch applied to make those ideas a reality. One of the best ideas that came out of the last city administration - the Operation Pride and Groom clean-up campaign, for example - didn't fly, because all the councilmembers weren't sold on it.

In the next administration, someone will have to sell county government on merging some services to save money. Someone will have to sell property owners on the idea that just sitting and holding decaying buildings only guarantees that those seeking residential or commercial space will look for it outside the city limits.

And someone will have to sell city residents on the idea that getting involved with an improvement association like Neighborhoods 1st is worth their time.

The person in the best position to do that is the city's mayor, who can bring scorn or praise to the city based on how well or poorly the job gets done.

If you're a city resident, take a look at the mayor's duties and decide whether you'd do the job for $28,000, in addition to giving up your privacy. Then pay attention between now and the May 15 election and decide whether incumbent Mayor Bob Bruchey or Councilman Bill Breichner would best fill the spot.

Bob Maginnis is the editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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