County Executive Charles I. Ecker spent most of yesterday getting started on his Monday night promise to provide a "friendly, open and responsive" administration.
Up at 5 a.m., as is his custom, he was in the office by 8 for an informal breakfast of orange juice, bagels, cheese and sweet rolls with career employees who staff the administrative offices near his.
The staff greeted him with three helium-filled "welcome" balloons and a big "Welcome Chuck" sign, hand-lettered in red and blue on a white background. Throughout the day he received potted plants and flowers from well-wishers, many of them coming from government employees themselves.
The welcome breakfast, the administrative staff said, is a tradition that began on the morning William E. Eakle started his three-month stint as interim county executive in 1986 and continued when Elizabeth Bobo succeeded him.
After breakfast, Ecker conferred privately in his office with administrative assistant Beverly W. Wilhide, although the door was left wide open.
"That's the last time," he joked with reporters afterward. "During the campaign, I promised to keep the door open -- but I never said how long."
He was clearly in a jovial mood. Yet he found it "hard to put into words" what he was really feeling on this day, he said.
He had no such difficulty talking with his department heads.
He told them during a 70-minute meeting in his office that his management style is to "walk" -- visit them in their offices to assure that the three objectives of his administration, "people, people, people," would be realized.
Ecker told his department heads he did not want them spending the next four years "promoting me" or themselves. "The least important word in the English language is 'I,' " he said, adding that the administration of county government must be a "we" endeavor. "I'm quick to give credit," he told his department heads, "but I take responsibility when something goes wrong."
That does not mean that he will always be accepting the blame, however.
When something does go wrong, Ecker will meet privately with the person or persons involved to find out what went awry, he said.
Having established the ground rules, Ecker then went visiting. By noon, he had covered every office and shaken the hand of virtually every employee in the county office building. After noon, he visited the nearby offices.
"Hi, I'm Chuck Ecker," he would say, extending his hand.
With some employees, it was just that quick and simple a meeting. With others, a story was exchanged, a friend remembered, a laugh shared as Ecker made fun of himself or teased someone he already knew well.
Sometimes, he would mention some problem he had encountered in a department. Other times, he would notice something special about an office or the person occupying it and use it as a way to begin a conversation.
At one point, an employee asked him if she was talking too much. "No, indeed, I want people to speak up," he said.
Another thanked him for his letter.
"Did I write you a letter?" he asked.
"It was for everyone," she told him.
"Oh, the letter in which I said you wouldn't be fired before Christmas," he said in his best Simon Legree imitation. It was a tension-breaker. The cruelty joke making the rounds in the county building is that Ecker and Saddam Hussein have one thing in common. Both plan to release everybody after Christmas.
Employee responses to Ecker were as different as the employees themselves.
Some got right into the informality of the moment and told him, "Glad to have you aboard, Chuck." Others, despite Ecker's humor and his attempts to put them at ease, responded to him with stiff formality -- calling him Mr.
Ecker or Dr. Ecker and lacing their comments with goodly helpings of "sir."
Still others rushed by him abruptly to get on with their work. Many of these have been in county government for years and have seen executives come and go. For them, this was just another workday, thank you.
Today, it will be that way for Ecker also as he begins in earnest to take up the agenda he put before about 1,000 enthusiastic supporters at Howard High School Monday night.
"The biggest challenge," he said immediately after being sworn in as executive, is to "implement the General Plan, develop an adequate public facilities act, begin a complete comprehensive rezoning, develop an economic development plan, develop a comprehensive transportation plan, provide a waste-management program and provide affordable housing" despite a projected deficit and declining revenues.
As he said to his department heads yesterday, Ecker told his audience, "This is not my administration. I need you. No one can do very much without the help of others. Certainly I cannot do it alone. But together, we can do it."
Ecker also counseled patience. "There are no quick fixes, no Band-Aid solutions," he said.
Ecker said he would be calling on the citizens of the county to "volunteer your time and your enthusiasm in working with me to make sure Howard County is fiscally prudent, environmentally sensitive and economically sound.
"You have a lot of experience," he said, "and I know you want to help."