Ecker, Citizens Go One-on-one In Meeting On County Concerns

Constituents Make Most Of 15 Minutes With Exec

January 23, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

The striking thing about County Executive Charles I. Ecker's one-on-one meetings with constituents at the Savage firehouse last Saturday was how vulnerable he looked.

Even at this level of government, anexecutive is usually accompanied by at least one staff member. Oftenat least two aides come along -- one to take notes and the other to act as rescuer.

The rescuer's function is to let people know the executive is a busy person, has other appointments and must move along. A good rescuer gives a polite excuse when the executive is cornered by long-winded, persistent or belligerent constituents.

Ecker, however, had neither note-taker nor rescuer Saturday.

Nattily attired in a light blue blazer, red tie, dark trousers and tasseled loafers, he sat alone at the end of a long table. No aides, no staff members, no departmentheads.

No modern technology, either. Instead of taping conversations that could be typed later, he wrote notes for himself on a yellowlegal pad, using a genuine fountain pen.

What most people wanted was for Ecker to make government do or stop doing something in their neighborhood. Each person had 15 minutes alone with him to press one or more concerns.

Despite the fact that there was virtually no advance publicity for his 9 a.m.-to-noon appearance in the Savage fire hall, 13 people showed up.

The line was never more than a trickle, but it was steady enough to keep Ecker going non-stop.

Few people had to wait. Most arrived at different times. It was as though they knew in advance when Ecker would be free.

They wanted him to provide curbside recycling, promise to keep a lid on residential growth, remove speed bumps from a road in Whiskey Bottom, open Route 100 immediately as a four-lane county highway, end county payments for parochial school buses and buy school sites now while prices are down.

Oneman asked Ecker to intervene and take his side in a family dispute. Another had a problem with his house and wanted Ecker to stop and seeit.

After each request, Ecker would patiently ask, "Anything else?"

Most often, there was. A contractor, after telling Ecker he wanted the licensing and permit process sped up for small projects, said, "Yeah, the thing sticking in (his) craw" was a couple of county workers he felt should be fired.

He was not alone in requesting cutbacks in employees. One woman told Ecker that if he must cut 10 percentfrom the school budget, he should get rid of administrators rather than teachers. And a veteran volunteer firefighter suggested Ecker getrid of high-paid fire officials.

"As far as high chiefs is concerned, we don't really need 'em," the volunteer told Ecker.

Other volunteers told Ecker that while volunteers and paid firefighters work well together at a fire scene, deep wounds continue to exist between them. Once back at the fire house, they "fight like cats and dogs," one said.

The Savage meeting was the first of several Saturday morning encounters Ecker has planned. At the Clarksville fire station Feb. 2 and the Hickory Ridge building Feb. 16, Ecker again promises to be present 9 a.m. to noon to spend 15 minutes alone with anyone who wants it.

"If the people come, I'm gonna continue" conducting these meetings every few weeks throughout the county, Ecker said. "If not, I'm gonna stay home and mow the lawn."

In the three hours and 10 minutes he spent hearing concerns in Savage last week, Ecker never appeared hurried or impatient. He did however, interrupt from time to time to help bring people to the point they wanted to make.

Sometimes he would be explicit, asking, "So what do you want?" Other times he would summarize, saying, "So what you want is for me to. . . ."

Only once did he cut someone off. Even then, he told the speaker thatif he would wait until everyone else had their turn, he would resumethe conversation. The man replied that he had said all he needed to say.

Ecker also flashed his well-known dry humor. After a community activist had pleaded with him to spend money on restoration of an historic building, she told him the price just to repair the slate roof was $150,000 to $200,000. "I'll be over on my lunch hour," Ecker said.

At another point, Ecker diffused what appeared to be the angerbuilding in a long litany of complaints, saying, "Tell me, when do you have time to go home, serving on all these committees?"

It is aquestion Ecker might well ask himself about attending all these meetings.

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