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A few suggestions for the next mayor of Hagerstown

April 13, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

Why would anyone want to be mayor of Hagerstown?

After all, the city has what is called a "weak mayor" form of government, in which the mayor has no vote. And, in a 1983 amendment to the city charter, the council clarified a provision that said that no elected official, acting on his or her own - including the mayor - could tell city employees how to do their jobs.

If the mayor has no vote and no real power, why does anyone run for the job? For starters, it pays $28,000. That's not a fortune, but enough to ensure that most incumbents won't have to work too many hours outside City Hall.

Then there is that same 1983 charter amendment, which said that although the city would have an administrator, the mayor could monitor that official's performance and report any observations to the council. The mayor is, in effect, the council's eyes and ears.

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But the mayor's real power is that he or she is the head of the city government. As others have noted, state officials and businesspeople don't read the charter before they come to town. They want to see the city government's head shot, a status that title confers on the mayor.

In addition to that, how effective the mayor is depends on how good the incumbent's ideas are and how much energy and intelligence the officeholder puts into making them a reality.

Let me suggest a few things the next mayor should make priorities:

· Get the city's utilities in good working order.

Repeated spills of partially treated sewage into the Antietam Creek are not only violations of state law, but also affect the ability of the city and county to steer new housing into the Urban Growth area. It's probably time to look at a combined city-county independent sewer authority, although such a merger is probably years away.

The next mayor also needs to check out operations at the City Light Department. In February it was announced that because the city's base rate hadn't been changed since the 1970s, last year the utility charged city customers $116,231 less than the cost of the electricity they used.

A question: Which city officials should have noticed this?

· Press ahead with residential redevelopment.

The revitalization plan put forth by the group headed by Richard Phoebus for the city's East End is a good one, but city officials must not forget that finding ways to turn existing rental properties into owner-occupied homes is also vital.

· Craft a plan for commercial development downtown.

The University System of Maryland's downtown campus is a jewel, but to succeed, the center city needs more foot traffic than the USM center will provide, at least for a while.

One project that might have done that was developer Manny Shaool's proposal to turn his downtown rug shop into a design center for new home buyers and renovators, a place where they could do everything from looking at house plans to buying a new faucet for the bathroom.

Shaool told me that he would do the $2 million project if the city would commit $400,000 to it. But a deal couldn't be cut and the center is being built on the Dual Highway instead.

Despite the arrival of the USM project, doing business downtown still involves more risk than setting up shop in a strip mall. City officials need to recognize that and provide incentives and/or staff help to compensate.

· Take the relationship with the Washington County government to the next level.

Two years ago, I wrote several columns about the possibility of merging the city and county governments.

My research found that some areas that had considered merging discovered that just by studying the idea, they uncovered ways to work together that saved both jurisdictions money, even if no full-blown merger took place.

The next mayor needs to champion such a study, because despite an expected increase in property-tax revenues, expenses for things such as government employees' health care will also be increasing.

· Resolve to use the gavel when needed.

The mayor may not have a vote, but as the presiding officer, he should be willing to gavel down council members for remarks that are insulting or inappropriate.

Now that its meetings are televised, the council needs to behave as if the whole world were watching how it does business.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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