Mount Airy looks impressive to traveling Argentine mayors

December 13, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

Small-town Mount Airy played host Friday to six mayors from similar-size communities in Argentina, who came to learn about small-town government and walked away impressed with citizen activism.

While they gleaned details from Mount Airy Mayor Gerald R. Johnson on such aspects of municipal government as budget, administration and services, the mayors' questions often focused on citizen participation.

"You have an advantage over us," Hector Ermando Selario, mayor of Fernandez, said through an interpreter. "There's a lot of activism here you can draw on. We're working on it, but we don't have it. Your people are proud of their town."

The delegation's interest in citizen participation didn't surprise Suzanne O'Hatnick, president of the International Visitors Center Maryland in Baltimore, which coordinated the group's trip to Mount Airy and Frederick County.

Ms. O'Hatnick said former Argentine President Raul Ricardo Alfonsin was equally impressed with citizen involvement when he visited Maryland several years ago to learn about the electoral process.

"He went back and initiated electoral reform which still holds true as a result of his visit here," Ms. O'Hat nick said. "He took what he learned and applied it there. He had great amazement at the participation here.

"Historically, people there have been killed for their participation," she added. "They have had very repressive regimes in the past. Participation is a newer concept there. And for towns in the outlying areas, it's something very fresh."

The mayors came from rural towns in the province of Santiago del Estero in northern Argentina, about 500 miles northwest of Buenos Aires, the South American nation's capital.

Their towns lie in a largely agricultural region, where the main industries are cattle and goat raising, dairy farming, small food processing and mining. The towns are slightly larger than Mount Airy, which has a population of 4,000.

"They wanted to visit towns somewhat comparable in size and interest but more sophisticated in management than theirs," Ms. O'Hatnick said. "They wanted to visit towns that would share information they could take back."

The U.S. Information Agency sponsored the delegation's visit, which also included stops in Washington, D.C.; Frederick; Middletown; and Walkersville.

During their exchange with Mayor Johnson, which lasted more than an hour, the Argentine officials asked questions about: the number of town employees, their duties, their salaries; the size of the town council, its duties; the mayor's role; budget expenditures and revenues; and citizen response to taxes and assessments.

Of the latter, Mayor Johnson said, "As long as we can justify where the money is going and what it is being used for, [citizens] understand."

The Argentine mayors also were impressed by the town's small staff.

Rodolfo Lino Cappellini, mayor of Villa Ojo de Agua, said "13 employees doesn't seem like very much" to run a town as clean and orderly as Mount Airy.

"How can 13 people keep your town going? What do all these volunteers do?" Mr. Cappellini asked.

Mayor Johnson said the town's 65 volunteers serve on various boards and committees, including the planning and zoning commission, which make decisions that affect the town.

Town employees, he said, do much of the manual work, including clerical duties, mowing and maintenance. Their salaries range from $18,000 to about $35,000. Their length of service ranges from four years to 40 years.

"Mount Airy is a very small town," Mayor Johnson said. "Most people here know each other. They take pride in the community in which they live. That is the driving force."

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