New mayor brings fiery style to job

Milestone: Despite challenges and disputes, Frederick's Jennifer P. Dougherty appears enthusiastic as she nears her first 100 days in office.

April 09, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- On her first day as Frederick mayor, Jennifer P. Dougherty took an emergency call from the Irish restaurant she owns and where she long served as a self-described "Jill-of-all-trades."

A chimney fire, Dougherty was told, but it's under control.

"The firefighters got there quickly -- they were worried the mayor's restaurant was burning down," Dougherty says.

It may have been an omen.

As she nears the end of her first 100 days in office, the first female mayor of Maryland's second-largest city hasn't stopped putting out fires.

The former Mount St. Mary's College field hockey star, who had never before held elective office, has warred with aldermen over City Hall appointments, broken a key campaign promise and suffered through the death of her just-confirmed chief operations officer --whose appointment had created dispute -- in an auto accident.

Through it all, Dougherty says, she has kept faith with a pledge she made before her January inauguration: "We're going to make mistakes because we don't know some things, but the mistakes will come because we're trying to move ahead, not because of deceit or ignorance."

She doesn't appear to have lost any of the enthusiasm she displayed on election night, when she jumped atop the bar at her restaurant and pub to proclaim, "We have a new mayor in the city of Frederick, and you're looking at her!"

The 40-year-old Democrat brought some keepsakes with her to ease the transition into the brick, Victorian City Hall, built in the 19th century as a courthouse.

She brought in her dining room table because her mother, who runs an Irish gift shop in town, told her, "You get a lot of work done at your dining room table."

On one side of the office is the framed slogan, "Irish Diplomacy: The ability to tell someone to go to hell so that he will look forward to the trip."

On the other side hangs a more subdued symbol: a photo of Dublin's imposing Kilmainham Jail, where Irish patriots were incarcerated or executed in the struggle for independence. "It's important to fight for the right things, even if there is risk," Dougherty says.

So far, her early fights have tested her will.

In January, three aldermen -- two Republicans and a Democrat -- blocked Dougherty's appointment of a fourth alderman, Democrat Donna S. Kuzemchak to the city's planning commission. One of the three, Republican Joseph W. Baldi, says the post should have gone to Democrat William G. Hall because he was the highest vote-getter among the alderman candidates in the November election.

Dougherty vetoed the denial, a move that Hall contends was illegal. Before the state attorney general's office could render a decision, the mayor rescinded her veto.

But she later won anyway when two of the "no" votes, including Baldi, crossed over and agreed to confirm Kuzemchak.

Baldi says he switched his vote to make peace. He says the past few months at City Hall have been characterized partly by posturing, as the mayor and aldermen define their authority.

"We're all going through a little bit of a testing time," Baldi says. "There have been more fireworks at meetings than in the past."

The bickering has sometimes pitted the three male aldermen against Dougherty and the two female aldermen. There is a City Hall joke circulating that the men-vs.-women dynamic is reminiscent of some old Brady Bunch episodes.

"The Brady Bunch. Yeah, that's pretty funny," Baldi says. "But it's not really boys against girls."

Baldi says some of the conflict results from Dougherty's tendency to consult with aldermen less frequently than her predecessor, Republican James S. Grimes, did before making appointments. Other critics of the mayor accuse her of being headstrong.

Dougherty acknowledges some people don't like her, and she's been called nasty names. "Just because they say it doesn't make it so," she says.

The bickering continued over the appointment in February of Rodney B. Pulliam as chief operating officer. Hall says the mayor improperly redefined the post, dropping some responsibilities and adding others. He and Republican David G. Lenhart abstained from endorsing Pulliam because of the reconfigured post, but the nominee was confirmed anyway.

Less than a month after his appointment, Pulliam, 38, and his three sons were killed on March 23, when a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass smashed into the rear of their car as they waited at a traffic light.

The next week, while working on such issues as housing blight and potential water shortages, the mayor found herself writing a eulogy and attending a series of memorial services for Pulliam.

Dougherty met Pulliam, pastor of a Virginia church, during last year's campaign. Both, in a sense, were outsiders. He had moved to Frederick in 1999 and was the first African-American in the city of 53,000 to be appointed to the high-level post.

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