New council secretary plans to stay awhile Sheila Tolliver is pioneer in job

March 21, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The wrought iron plaque on the Annapolis porch brings a smile. It reads, "Tolliver Place, established 1966."

In all fairness, the Weems Creek bungalow looks a little older -- circa 1956 -- not exactly a candidate for the historic house tour.

More than merely droll, the plaque implies warmth and sensitivity. "Nineteen sixty-six is when we were married," says Sheila Maureen Tolliver, who has just been appointed the first woman and first nonresident executive secretary of the Howard County Council.

"I'm a little surprised," she says. "It didn't occur to me that I would be

the first woman to be executive secretary. I hope it's some advantage. My own sense is that a woman's place is any place."

Certainly that's true of Ms. Tolliver, 46. She presented the council an eye-popping, five-page resume that includes a five-year term as assistant vice-chancellor of the University of Maryland and 10 years as executive assistant for education to three Maryland governors.

She earned a doctorate in special education in 1984, a master's degree in 1973 and a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education in 1968, all from the University of Maryland.

Except on her resume, Ms. Tolliver doesn't boast about her accomplishments. If anything, she plays them down.

"I've had some lucky breaks," she says. "In junior high, I was put into


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an experimental program for acceleration, and I had some exceptional teaching. I had lots of support from my mother and lots of encouragement from my father, especially in school-related achievement."

The support is still there whenever she wants it. She lives down the street from the house where she grew up and her parents still live. Her husband, Larry, is the state police superintendent.

Although she has "always been pretty much academically oriented," she decided to become a teacher "because it was one of the few things a girl could do in those days," she says. "I loved reading and writing particularly."

Like Emily Dickinson, she is a closet poet who "writes for myself."

She has a wide taste in music, which she attributes to her father's having played flute and piccolo in the U.S. Naval Academy band. But she draws the line at heavy metal, her 20-year-old son's favorite. On this day, the stereo plays Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

"I picked up many instruments and put them down. I have no talent," she says with a laugh. "I tried the flute but broke my arm. I would still like to master the piano someday."

For a Renaissance woman who has served in the highest echelons in Annapolis, attending to the Howard County Council might seem dull by comparison.

Not so, Ms. Tolliver says. "I thoroughly enjoy working with people. There is a common thread between the teaching I've done with people of common yet diverse backgrounds and working with elected officials who represent that broad constituency."

What the council asked for, she says, is for her to manage the council staff in such a way that the staff delivers what council members want, to analyze legislation and policy, to become an advocate for the

council at budget time, and to act as liaison with the public and the press.

"It fairly well parallels the roles I played in the governor's office," she said. "I like having the opportunity to work from a staff perspective. You can be more objective and thorough. It fits my academic background."

As staff person, Ms. Tolliver will not have to worry about whether constituents like a particular piece of legislation, although she may have to worry about how council members feel about it. Past executive secretaries have been unable to avoid getting seared by council members who have conflicting opinions.

The average stay for an executive secretary is under two years. Her predecessor, attorney Hugh Forton, stayed nearly three.

Ms. Tolliver doesn't see tenure as a problem. "We're here to make a difference," she says. "I may be a little naive, but I don't think this is a temporary job. I hope the job I do will be good enough that people would want me to stay [after the 1994 council elections]. But if it's short term, it's short term. I've looked for work before."

She points to a plate of delicious looking cakes and brownies on the table, and offers them to a guest. "I'm a good baker," she says. "If all else fails, I'll take sweets to the office."

Ms. Tolliver will begin work April 5 at an annual salary of $67,757 -- nearly $11,000 more than the amount paid her predecessor.

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