Politics and Blind Loyalty

March 25, 1993

One couldn't help but feel empathy, even a little pity, for th town fathers of Cumberland. They welcomed their new town manager at a barbecue lunch, then watched their police chief arrest him on kidnapping, armed robbery and assault charges -- all in the same afternoon.

City officials had searched half a year to find the right person to manage their town, which has been beset by unemployment and a municipal deficit as high as $500,000. They thought they found their man in Teddy C. Ryan Jr., whose 25-year career in municipal management and his technology background excited officials who felt he would lead them into a new era. Between his hire in January and his arrival on the job in early March, however, Mr. Ryan was allegedly involved in a kidnapping and armed robbery in southwest Florida.

Though Mr. Ryan had run-ins at the Boston suburb where he worked previously, and his resume shows an unsettling 14 stops in 27 years, the Cumberland folks were smitten by him. "We're going to stand behind him unless we see another side of it," assured Mayor Edward Athey. A day later, the mayor and council terminated his contract.

Did the Cumberlanders feel like suckers for sticking by their man, even for a few days? No, says the thoughtful mayor: "If you want to be trusted, you have to trust somebody else."

If one's inclination was to conclude that the small town pols were too unsophisticated or isolated to see through their hire's shortcomings, it would be wrong. And, one wouldn't have to look far to find other examples: How about Baltimore?

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke absorbed criticism about the ineffectiveness of Richard C. Hunter as school superintendent from 1988 to 1991 and of Robert W. Hearn as housing director before he moved to relieve them of those jobs. He now acknowledges both situations begged for change, and realizes his failure to act decisively could become an issue should he run for governor.

Surely, the specifics in dilemmas that faced the small city officials and the big city mayor differed markedly, but in both, the officials were reluctant to admit bad hires.

This is a malady that afflicts public-sector executives more than private-sector bosses, probably because management changes in government appear as such open admissions of error. Shouldn't politicians grasp that voters are more impressed by decisive corrections in mid-course than by their damning all criticism and sailing into the rocks?

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