Mount Airy's Johnson finds zeal, passion work for him

Town council president takes job as assistant to commissioner Gouge

Carroll County

February 09, 2003|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Few things bother Frank Johnson more than whispered discontent that festers unaddressed.

That's why the president of Mount Airy's town council confronted critics of his leadership style at a recent council meeting.

Johnson told them that if they found him overbearing and didn't want to work with him anymore, he would resign on the spot as liaison to the town's planning board and as council president.

One surprised fellow councilman said Johnson was reacting to a "slow down" request by offering to throw himself out of the car. But Johnson defended his style.

"I am passionate, I do care about things, I do come prepared," said Johnson, a lawyer versed in code enforcement and zoning law. "I can't see that changing."

Johnson's zeal and attention to detail are the qualities most often praised by those who have watched him assume a growing leadership role in Carroll County.

Until last year, Johnson, 40, seemed like just another councilman, one of dozens across Carroll County who rarely garner much attention beyond municipal borders.

But then, he was chosen president of a council that swept out the old guard in Mount Airy government.

And in the months that followed, he helped lead an effort to unify Carroll's eight towns as a single lobbying force. He also campaigned tenaciously for an ultimately victorious slate of reform candidates in last fall's county elections.

Finally, he accepted a job as assistant to County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge.

In six months, he had transformed himself from a meticulous zoning authority into a formidable player in county affairs.

"He's an incredibly competent person," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, who got to know Johnson as they worked on creating the council of governments, which they hope will give Carroll's towns a stronger voice in county affairs.

"He's part of a new direction coming about in Carroll County, and he really makes access to the commissioners much better."

Herman said Johnson seems to bring a rare combination of concern for people and command of legal particulars.

Gouge said Johnson's precise style makes him the perfect person to send to meetings with town and state officials.

"If I get a phone call about a problem, I know I can send Frank in to get the details," she said.

Though he hasn't been publicly criticized for serving both town and county, some political observers and officials in other towns have privately predicted that he will run into conflicts of interest.

Johnson addressed those whispers during his speech Monday night. He said that when issues arise that require the Mount Airy and county governments to negotiate, he won't participate.

"It's all going to be fair, and it's all going to be above board," he said. "If Mount Airy needs an advocate, they'll have to send somebody else, because I'm not going to put the commissioners in that position."

He has said his main concern will be balancing a schedule crammed with 60 to 70 hours of county work a week.

Johnson moved to Mount Airy in 1994 and was voted to the town council, his first elected office, in 2000. As a lawyer, he worked for Legal Aid and as a code enforcer for Montgomery County before taking the job as Gouge's assistant in November.

In Mount Airy, he made his reputation as an authority on growth issues in a town that was struggling to deal with the rapid influx of Washington-area commuters. He advocated and helped to craft the development caps that put the town at the forefront of controlling growth in Carroll's southern half.

Johnson attends most meetings in conservative suit and tie and favors making his points not with fiery oratory but with language that wouldn't sound out of place in a court filing.

A few members of the Mount Airy planning commission say they've felt rushed by him to decide on some key zoning issues, such as a vote in December to exclude concrete and asphalt production plants as acceptable businesses under town zoning. Johnson pushed the proposal.

"He knew exactly what he wanted to do, but sometimes, the planning commission needs more than just the time in one meeting to make a decision on a big issue," said Wendi Peters, vice chair of the planning commission.

"I've felt somewhat berated by him for having different opinions."

Johnson said he pushed the issue because he wanted to have a clear policy in place before a business owner who had expressed interest in opening a plant sought zoning approval.

But he said he generally encourages town leaders to take as many extra months as they need to tinker with his proposals. For example, Johnson suggested such delays last year when the town council was working on tightening growth controls.

Mount Airy Mayor James Holt said Johnson's best qualities are the same ones that make him intimidating to some colleagues.

"He has a real ambitious agenda, and I give him credit for it," Holt said. "But I think he gets frustrated sometimes, because we don't all have the instant command of issues that he has."

When he's interested in pressing an issue, Johnson calmly but doggedly brings group discussion back to what he sees as the core points. He often shows up to meetings with detailed proposals drafted in the legal language he uses so adeptly.

Johnson said he does this not to intimidate his colleagues into quick votes but because he believes specific proposals lead to more fruitful dialogue.

"It never has to be my way," he said. "But you can't start talking about an issue in an intelligent way until you have a draft out there to throw rocks at. So I try to provide that."

After Johnson had offered at the town meeting Monday to stop working on town zoning matters, planning commission members quickly said that that was not what they wanted.

Several said they think lingering tensions can be worked out at the next planning and zoning meeting, scheduled for the end of the month.

"Frank's accomplished a lot for Mount Airy," said Peters. "We all understand that."

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