None of the Above
As Anne Arundel replaces a flawed county executive, it’s time to rethink how we hire our top leaders
On a scale starting with your favorite Valentine chocolate and dropping to a shot of syrupy cough medicine, where would you rank county government?
Most of us, I fear, don’t place it in a heart-shaped satin box.
Certainly not many of us who live in Anne Arundel County, which is one of eight of Maryland’s 23 counties governed by an executive.
In the best of times, county government is medicine you’ve got to take. It may do good things for you, but it doesn’t go down easily.
In the worst of times … well, the News of the Weird ride we’ve taken with now-resigned Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold has shaken loose loads of cynicism.
Even in better times, we’re more likely to rue the impediments county government puts in our way than celebrate the advantages it gives us.
Yet in Tidewater Maryland, where we can count local governments on the fingers of one hand, most of the services we depend on in everyday life come from county government. Public works like management of our roads and wastes; public health and safety; land use planning; schools from kindergarten through community colleges; libraries; parks and places to play; and general government. All these are enumerated by the Maryland Association of Counties as services we get from our counties.
Of course one citizen’s service may be another’s encroachment. One of us celebrates the flush tax for helping us keep our most personal wastes from polluting the Bay. Another says it brings Big Brother stomping through our back yards. One of us believes general development plans ensure our common future well-being. Another curses planners and zoners for trespassing on private property rights.
If county government is our big brother, he’s a bipolar sibling who still lives at home. Sometimes he’s very, very good, and sometimes he’s awful. Either way, we can’t get away from him.
Maybe — terrible thought — he’s the big brother we deserve. For whether county executive as in Anne Arundel or county commissioners as in Calvert, we elect him — or them.
Once we elect them, we’re happy to criticize. Whoever we elect doesn’t suit us.
Maybe that’s because the people who run our counties are largely self-selected. Candidates for both counties’ top jobs run for their own reasons. Public service gets lots of lip service, but that handy phrase doesn’t tell the whole story. Mixed in are varying degrees of joblessness, aspiration, vanity, self-esteem and conviction we have a better grasp of the common good than the somebody who’s been doing the job.
After Leopold, that leaves the field wide open.
In truth, the field is always wide open. It’s a race anybody can join.
Does a candidate have wide knowledge of the county, its issues and departments? A taste for public policy — a subject so specialized many of us might find it arcane? Good study habits? Endurance for public meetings? Patience for listening? Ability to work in groups to get things done? Experience running anything, let alone complex organizations? Tolerance for the particular and peculiar business of politics? Integrity?
Do the candidates’ qualifications match the job? It doesn’t matter. There’s neither description nor minimum qualifications for a job this important.
Nor are we who judge the competition particularly qualified. Do we know the candidate? That’s much more likely in Calvert. With its small size, under 100,000 people, one of the five to be elected is likely somebody we know.
Do we go out of our way to know the candidates better? Public forums are numerous and well attended, but the few hundred who listen is a pretty small sample of the thousands who vote. And the thousands more who don’t bother.
It’s a race decided by self-appointed judges whose preference is mostly None of the Above.
John Leopold won his first term as county executive because he was an avid campaigner. He spent years going door to door in neighborhoods throughout the county. When he wasn’t canvassing, he was standing at busy intersections waving his own signs. He won the job because he wanted it.
By his second election, allegations of his peculiar personal behavior were already swirling. We elected him anyway. Why?
“Stabilizing the work force, not going to the public for tax increases and relying on competent insiders.” So says Dan Nataf, the political scientist who runs Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues.
Is that all we want of our leaders?
Anne Arundel’s second chance, which gives us opportunity to think about how to do a better job in recruiting and hiring for our top job.
In fact, we’ve got two chances.
Next week, Anne Arundel’s County Council will choose a Republican to run county government in Leopold’s stead for the rest of 2013 and all of 2014.
It could be you, so long as you make your application by noon on Friday, February 15. (Particulars on Anne Arundel County Council web site.)
It won’t be long after that that candidates, Republican and Democratic, in both Anne Arundel and Calvert, get ready for the campaign of 2014.
So now’s the time do some hard thinking. What do we want of our leaders? How should we go about electing candidates better than None of the Above?
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; firstname.lastname@example.org