Frederick: The Age of Managers?

December 13, 1991

Last month, voters overwhelmingly turned down a proposal to change Frederick County's commissioner form of government to one with a county executive and council. No sooner had the rejection been tallied up than a majority of the part-time commissioners came up with a new idea. They want a county manager to be hired to watch over the government's increasingly complex day-to-day operations.

Meanwhile, Frederick City Mayor Paul Gordon wants his job reduced to a part-time position so a city manager could be hired to oversee the municipality's daily affairs.

Elected officials in Frederick city and county seem to have a clear understanding that population growth in their subdivision has been so rapid that government at all levels cannot cope with the mounting service demands without professional, full-time management.

Local governance throughout the nation has grown more and more turbulent over the past two decades. Social, economic and technological changes have been exceedingly fast. Rapid suburban expansion has added to the problem. The Reagan and Bush administrations, meanwhile, turned many of the obligations the federal government traditionally had assumed over to the states, which now are transferring them to localities.

All this is sorely testing strategic decision-making. "Trying to run county government by a committee, which we are doing, is a very difficult process," says Commissioner Bruce Reeder. "The complex regulations imposed by state and federal government now requires a professional manager."

Since Frederick County already has an appointed administrative officer, it is not clear how different his duties would be from those of the proposed manager. For that reason, a much more detailed plan is needed from the commissioners on how the proposed arrangement would work.

Various jurisdictions administer local government in widely different ways. There is always room for changes as well as experiments.

One thing is clear, however: Elected officials received a mandate from voters to run government. They can delegate responsibilities but cannot abandon them. If they think an appointed manager can -- or will -- take political responsibility when they themselves lack either courage or foresight in decision-making, they should get out of politics. Managers are only as good as the elected officials who appoint them.

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