The new Roger Hayden steps into the public eye Man 'at the helm' wants more visibility

July 20, 1992|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

The old Roger B. Hayden would have quietly visited the smoldering Granite stump dump fire, looked the smoky scene over with his fire chief and aides, and departed without fanfare.

No more.

Last week, the new Roger B. Hayden was unveiled. His visit to Granite was listed on his official schedule, and all four Baltimore television stations were there to record him inspecting the stubborn fire.

With that appearance -- and the demotion previously of Carol Hirschburg, his former spokeswoman -- the first-term Baltimore County executive abandoned his 19-month effort to stay out of the public eye and launched a determined effort to shape the public's perception of his administration.

Until last week, for example, county school officials jealously guarded their autonomy from elected county officials -- especially when it came to decisions about educational XTC programs.

On Wednesday, however, Mr. Hayden and County Council Chairman William A. Howard 4th, R-6th, held an unprecedented joint news conference with school officials at an Essex elementary school to announce expansion of the kindergarten program from half to whole days at 32 county schools.

School board President Rosalie Hellman said that the approval of the executive and council was needed to transfer money to pay for the kindergarten expansion, so it was only right that they be at the news conference. "They were very cooperative and supportive," she said.

Advance notice of the event was sent to local media in a news release by Chuck Jackson, Mr. Hayden's new spokesman.

Mr. Hayden, a Republican who won an upset election victory in 1990, said Wednesday that his aides are correct in saying that the only effective way to tell residents what their government is doing is for him to use the media and tell them himself.

That's the reason he hired Mr. Jackson, who, sources say, Mr. Hayden believes is more adept at media relations than was Ms. Hirschburg.

The executive, who has always insisted that he's a businessman running the county like a business, said his purpose is not to promote his own political fortunes, though he acknowledged that that is an inseparable side effect. He said he wants only to tell county residents what their government is doing.

"I want to be very careful in the things that we do," Mr. Hayden said, to avoid any appearance of self-promotion. This is a particularly sensitive issue because one of his most consistent criticisms of his predecessor, Dennis F. Rasmussen, during the election campaign was that Mr. Rasmussen, a Democrat, used the Office of Communications to promote himself instead of promoting county government.

Upon taking office, Mr. Hayden appointed Ms. Hirschburg to preside over the dismantling of the communications office, reducing its staff from 11 to five. But he said last week that the dismantling may have gone a bit too far. The previous week, Ms. Hirschburg received a pay cut and lost her county car when she was demoted to a constituent service job on the executive's staff.

Mr. Jackson, her replacement, is bubbling over with ideas for getting his boss' name and face before the public.

"It's almost like theater," said Mr. Jackson, formerly a spokesman for the Maryland State Police. "I'm the stage manager. He is the commander-in-chief. He is at the helm."

Mr. Jackson said the role of an elected leader is to be visible, to tell citizens what their government is doing, and to reassure them when upsetting things occur.

News organizations are going to be looking for public comments from elected leaders when important events occur, he said, and they might as well hear from Baltimore County's executive as from Harford's or Howard's.

Because of Mr. Hayden's 12 years on the county school board, Mr. Jackson felt it would be only natural that the county executive participate in the announcement of a major expansion of kindergarten services.

"The public's perception is what's important," Mr. Jackson said. "Perception is reality."

Council Chairman Howard and Councilman Douglas B. Riley, a Towson Republican, both praised Mr. Hayden's move.

Mr. Howard, of Fullerton, who was harshly critical of Mr. Rasmussen's alleged use of county government for self-promotion, praised Mr. Hayden's new attempt at visibility. "People want to see their public leaders," he said. "It's a positive change."

He said the difference between what Mr. Hayden is doing, and what he accused Mr. Rasmussen of having done, is "scale" and "tact."

Mr. Riley said he thinks the change "is a great thing. When [Mr. Hayden] gets out and talks to people, I think he's very persuasive."

The perception that is then conveyed, he added, is that Mr. Hayden is competent. "If he wants to keep the job, he's got to put you [press] guys into the loop," Mr. Riley said.

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