In the early 1980s, Gilbert Renaut built a home in Murray Hill, a neighborhood within walking distance of Spa Creek and downtown Annapolis. The one-time federal litigator had an affinity for architectural history and wanted to prove he could build a Colonial reproduction house on a middle-class budget.
After that project led to a stint on the Annapolis Historic Preservation Committee, he also ended up proving he had a passion for local politics. He chaired the Murray Hill Centennial in 1990, served as president of the Murray Hill Residents Association and then ran the Ward One Residents Association.
"Over the years, I got invited to run civic associations fairly frequently because I was good at bringing people together," said Renaut, who now is relying on that skill in his campaign for mayor of Annapolis.
Now a court-appointed mediator, Renaut has spent about 25 years listening to people and helping them sort out disputes. Mediation, he said, is cheaper and less time-consuming than litigation. But its real benefit is the way the battling parties feel after resolution. Jury trials are difficult, negative experiences, Renaut said, and even the winning side can come away from harsh cross-examinations feeling as if it lost. But with a mediator's help, he says, both sides can walk away feeling content and accomplished.
It's a strategy Renaut says he has used in the associations he ran and in the mayoral race he lost in 2005. He vowed to fight polarization and bring Annapolis' warring citizens together again. But he was running against an incumbent with far more funding, and his message didn't carry him to victory. This time around, he's facing six other Democrats, one independent and one Republican in an open race."Now everybody's kind of looking at it that way," Renaut said of his unifying approach, "and that's fine, I'm not objecting, but I'm by far the most qualified to run a government that way."
He pointed to his time as president of the Ward One Residents Association, a three-year tenure in which he said he consistently garnered unanimous votes. Renaut credits his success to his application of transparency, outreach and policy - three key words he's morphed into something of a campaign theme.
Transparency and outreach fall into line with his ideas about mediation: An open mind and an extended hand will always work. Every time the city wants to enact change, the council should announce the proposal to the public and "give people a chance to object," Renaut said. That way, when the city takes unpopular measures such as raising parking fees, no one is surprised.
If he's elected, he wants to talk to every department head right away to listen to their concerns, along with representatives of government employees. Leaders, he said, need to listen more than they talk - and when they do talk, they should make sure it is clearly.
"The city government needs to be much more open about what it's doing, and if it were, I think the population would be happier," he said, noting that the property tax cap proposal also begs for transparency. He doesn't support the tax cap; instead, he thinks the government needs to make sure residents understand exactly where their taxes are going. But all this transparency and outreach still will fail without strong policies, Renaut stressed.
"The bottom line is policy, and we don't have policies," he said. "We just have kind of ad-hoc and knee-jerk reactions to things."
He underscored the need for a coordinated transportation policy, so that bus and parking systems are coordinated. He voiced concerns for the environment, and for tougher regulations regarding stormwater runoff. And he suggested Annapolis promote unique events, rather than ones that could happen in any city.
Beth Kahr, the executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association, said Race Week counts in that category and deserves the attention of the mayor.
"It really does showcase Annapolis and sailing and everything that's part of the heritage of this town," said Kahr, who came to work at CBYRA while Renaut was president of the board. He'll get her vote, not only because of his focus on special events but because of his "easygoing" management style and his resume.
"I have a history of litigation and mediation and civic management and a propensity to listen seriously to people, which I think is what the city needs more than anything now," Renaut said.