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Mayors: The leaders of small towns have similar responsibilities, but "the job often turns out to be whatever the mayor chooses to make of it."

October 11, 2001|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

If residents of tiny Union Bridge desire a word with the mayor, they need not go through a spokesman or wait for a public hearing. All they have to do is slip on their shoes and walk down Main Street to Tuck Jones Chevron Service Center.

There he'll be, in his oil-smudged work shirt, with his first name, Perry, stenciled on the chest. He'll pause a few minutes to talk -- and if there's a problem, he'll solve it or pass it along to someone else who will.

Such a scene would be unimaginable in Baltimore or Washington, but in the towns of Carroll County and in similar places across the state and nation, mayors are not remote figures with a slew of underlings at their disposal.

If they don't work in town, as Perry Jones does in Union Bridge, they coach Little League, serve in the volunteer fire company or live on the corner of Main Street. No distance separates them and their constituents, a fact that can be comforting or aggravating, given that some people call the mayor at home when they have problems.

Carroll is unique among counties in the Baltimore metropolitan area for its number of incorporated towns with fewer than 10,000 people. The seven mayors of these municipalities serve part time and receive less than $5,000 a year for their troubles.

Their jobs require no particular qualifications, other than a willingness to "put on a suit and answer the difficult questions," as Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman put it. But their devotion, patience and understanding of municipal minutiae often seem as great as -- if not greater than -- those of their big-city counterparts.

When asked what most separates small-town mayors from big-city mayors, Ken Munsell of the Small Town Institute in Washington state said, "Accessibility, no question.

"What you really see in small-town mayors is that they are generally known in the community as people who get things done," he said. "You know if your dog is lost, you call the mayor because you think he can find it. In that very real sense, these people, and the town council members too, hold special places in small communities."

But if small-town mayors are known for accessibility and problem-solving skills, they nonetheless operate in a wide variety of styles. Some like to handle as much as they can themselves, some like to delegate. Some adopt the informal style of a neighbor who likes to provide one-to-one counsel, some try to project business-like demeanors.

"There's a huge amount of variation. The job often turns out to be whatever the mayor chooses to make of it," said James P. Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League.

Jones ascribes little romance to his position.

"It doesn't make that much difference," he said of being so accessible. "It might surprise people, but when you talk to the big-city mayors, the problems we face are really pretty similar."

Jones, who runs town meetings with an informal but commanding voice, said residents in Union Bridge, with a population of about 1,000, rarely bother him at home. He couldn't think of any odd middle-of-the-night requests for service. The main problems he confronts -- sewer, water, police, development and traffic -- are also at the top of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's checklist.

Jones handles a lot of the town's business, but so do the town clerk and the town consultant. With eight or 10 meetings a month on top of his 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shift at the service station, the 49-year-old sleeps only about five hours a night -- but that's life for someone who wants to serve the public, he said.

Jones joined the Town Council when he was appointed to replace his deceased father. He rose to council president and, from there, mayor seemed a logical next step. He tried another step when he ran for Carroll County commissioner in 1998, but as a Democrat in a Republican-dominated county, he was outgunned.

Many Carroll mayors say they delegate significant responsibilities to town managers and council members because they don't want to be and shouldn't be the final word on every decision. Like their big-city counterparts, they strive to be the guiding heads of efficient corporations rather than the Solomons of town hall.

Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin fits this mold. The leader of an increasingly commuter-dominated town of 5,060, Nevin, 43, earns his living as a banker in downtown Baltimore.

He ran for mayor because he felt that the town's leadership had become set in its old ways and was unprepared to guide Hampstead through development issues. Now, he said, the town manager, Ken Decker, grasps the details, and each of the town's five council members has an area of expertise.

"To be honest, I'm fortunate that with the team I have in place, they seldom can't handle something to the point where it ends up in front of me," Nevin said.

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