Portrait of the artist as a novice city leader

Mayor: Westminster's top official is drawing attention for his unconventional approach to governing.

March 17, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

"Sudden potatoes and absolute screen doors."

Kevin Dayhoff was out for a run one day a few years ago when the phrase just stuck in his head.

At first, he wasn't sure what it meant, but those six words ended up as the title of an essay he wrote on returning to college at the age of 46. And when, as mayor of Westminster, he put together a 76-page anthology on city government, he led with a tribute to a retiring city clerk and ended with an excerpt from his poetry collection, Peerings Through the Absolute Screendoor.

"It's just fun," says the highest elected official in Maryland's 11th-largest municipality. "Isn't it a fun phrase?"

In the county-seat atmosphere that is Westminster, City Hall is occupied by a politician who sees himself as a sort of Andy Warhol of government, a self-described "nontraditional, somewhat anti-authoritarian artist" who has lost the long hair and gone to a khaki-and-tweed look - usually set off, however, with bold neckties.

Kevin E. Dayhoff is a Democrat-turned-Republican who, as a freshman city councilman, surprised his colleagues in Westminster government by running for mayor - and winning, by 51 votes.

At 49, he no longer runs his landscaping company, instead spending his days checking on the family finances and attending to the duties of his $10,000-a-year City Hall job. He is something of a perennial student - going to college "every decade whether he needs to or not," according to his self-penned bio - but he has never earned a degree.

As mayor, he produces and hands out oversize business cards with quotations from historic figures and photos with joke captions - and pictures of himself and his wife in Civil War garb.

He paints and sketches and snaps photographs. And he writes. A lot.

Among his writings: The Republic of the Hill, a fantasy in which Westminster's McDaniel College (formerly known as Western Maryland College) declares its sovereignty and becomes a European-style duchy.

"I have a dream that Western Maryland College has developed for 133 years towards a destiny of World Domination," he writes. Referring to the school's president, Joan Develin Coley, he adds, "It is only speculation that Dr. Coley will proclaim herself Queen Joan I and re-establish a monarchy that history suggests was first established at Western Maryland College in 206 B.C., right after the Third Punic War."

He produces these volumes on his home computer, scanning photos to add to the text and printing the final product on industrial-size machines. He's working on a 100-page report on the La Plata tornado cleanup efforts and an 80-page action plan for Westminster.

Typically, his booklets include information on Westminster's government and police force and biographies of city officials, past and present.

He hands them out - autographed - as a follow-up to conversations with residents, municipal officials and anyone else who might be interested. He includes his cartoons and his original verses alongside his reports on the city's economic potential and other matters of civic importance.

`Outside the box'

"Kevin has a very sort of different way of thinking about these things than the rest of us do," said L. Gregory Pecoraro, a former Westminster councilman who is chief of staff for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "He talks a lot of wanting to think outside the box, and he certainly does that and comes up with a lot of ideas more innovative than they are practical."

Dayhoff says art and government can mix. He likens the act of delegating responsibility to collaborating in a creative venture.

"As the mayor, I am the movie producer," he said in a recent interview. "The director of this movie is the staff. They make it happen. The movie stars are the council members.

"My job is to create the air, atmosphere and environment so that it can happen."

Dayhoff is a ninth-generation Carroll County resident and Westminster native who says he spent his early years admiring the city's public servants and dreaming of becoming mayor.

After graduating from Westminster High School in 1971, he attended Elon College in North Carolina on a football scholarship. He left school to start a landscaping business.

Dayhoff says he frequently drove to New York with slides of his artwork in hand, courting galleries and attending art parties. Over the years, he has sold pieces, some for as much as a few hundred dollars, but never enough to make a living, he says.

Dayhoff moved to a farmhouse in Finksburg in 1983 and set up a studio. He still owns the property.

He also studied biology and political science at Towson State University in the 1980s. Dayhoff sported wavy dark hair, usually tied in a ponytail, down to his back for much of that time. By 1995, when he met the woman who would become his third wife, he had cut it to ear level.

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