High-profile Town Manager Ends Crofton's Isolationism

December 24, 1991|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff writer

Town managers in Crofton used to be the quiet people in the corner of the room who stood up at meetings, gave reports and sat back down again.

They were discouraged from driving the community car outsidethe special tax district and were not supposed to spend time in Annapolis unless the issue had a direct bearing on local affairs.

Crofton was a self-contained community, an island surrounded on three sides by major roads that resembled neutral zones between the tax district and the rest of the county.

Enter Jordan Harding, the former seven-term mayor of New Carrollton and an expert on municipal government who believes Crofton's isolationist views could work against the community.

He doesn't sit behind his desk and he doesn't avoid Annapolis. He thrives on making contacts, keeps a high public profile, doesn't shy away from a fight and protects Crofton as if it werehis child.

He has cleaned up streets and pressured shopping center owners to do the same. He has gotten county workers to fix up parksand, through donations, has spruced up Town Hall.

He is not afraid of using his political influence to get perks for Crofton, a tacticthat has drawn the ire of neighboring communities who complain county officials bend over backward to give the special tax district everything it asks for.

Harding has moved fast, sometimes jumping aheadof the board of directors. He has been criticized for changing the way Crofton police respond to calls, for trying to eliminate trash bagservice to residents and for helping a community drug program get money from a developer immersed in controversy with the county in and out of court.

Detractors say he acts more like the mayor of Croftonthan its town manager, leading the board through a period of change instead of following the direction it lays down.

But whether you love him or hate him, Harding has made his mark. The 61-year-old town manager from Potomac gets things done.

"Crofton has always been a community that people listen to," said County Councilwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River, whose South County district includes Crofton. "But Harding has taken hold of many of the ideas that have floated around and done something with them."

When Jordan Harding arrived in Crofton about a year ago, he coined a new word to describe his tireless worth ethic. He called it "streeting."

Not satisfied to remain in his office, he likes to get out, meet the people he serves, knock on doors and personally resolve neighborhood disputes. He hasn't changed much since his days as mayor of New Carrollton.

Described as amaster of small-town politics by The Washington Post in 1979, the newspaper claimed Harding harbored "frustrated political ambitions" -- frustrated not because of an inability to get elected, but by a government job that prohibited him from engaging in partisan politics.

Harding, who has been married to Ilo-Mai for five years, has four children from a previous marriage, all of them grown and living in the area. He was born in Old Fort, N.C., and moved to Maryland in the early 1950s.

Harding started his political career in 1968 when he was elected to the New Carrollton City Council. He became mayor -- a non-partisan position -- in 1970 and served seven two-year terms.

In 1984, he went to work in the U.S. embassy in Poland. Three years later, he returned to his government job, a labor relations specialist with the U.S. Information Agency. He retired just before applying for the Crofton job.

Harding also has served as president of the Prince George's County Municipal League and as vice president of the Maryland Municipal League, which still sends out parts of the treatise on the benefits of municipal incorporation Harding wrote in the 1970s.

He has kept up his contacts over the years. On any given day, a mayorfrom some city in Poland or a space shuttle commander can be found touring Crofton.

More important than the dignitaries who go home with a plaque or a citation are the state and county officials who wander into Town Hall. Harding knows whom to call to get whatever he wants done.

But press for specifics, and Harding is reluctant to talk,fearful of drawing the wrath of neighboring communities angry at Crofton's successes.

"Why don't you give it to us?" Harding says, mocking a quote from a disgruntled community leader. "That's the problemwith mouthing off on what has come to Crofton."

From what he doessay, how he gets what he wants done is as much a lesson in civility as public relations.

"I want the man who is on the truck, the man with the chain saw -- I want to have these people in having coffee with me and I want to find out what is going on in their lives," he said. "One thing leads to another, and I get a good job."

AH: Making policy?

Jordan Harding's first run-in with the people he serves came soon after the board hired him, when he decided distributing trashbags to residents was just too much work for a beleaguered staff that depended on volunteers for survival.

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