Tip of the hat, wag of the tail to Schaefer, an original 'watchdog'

Late former mayor remembered for 'action memos,' attention to detail

April 23, 2011|By Liz F. Kay, The Baltimore Sun

This week, we pause to salute an original watchdog: William Donald Schaefer.

By now, readers have seen countless stories about the former Baltimore mayor's dedication to customer service and to attacking the quality-of-life problems that constantly crop up: trash dumped in alleys, streetlights out, clogged storm drains.

He was known to spend weekends and evenings trolling city streets and avenues for such issues, and for delivering "action memos" to staff seeking swift response.

"He considered Baltimore his home — not just Edgewood Street where he lived with his mother, but the entire city," said Ron Rogers, who worked under Schaefer as a systems analyst for the city budget director. "Every place was his backyard, and he wanted it kept clean, and he wanted everybody to be happy and their needs taken care of."

Randy Evans worked for the Department of Housing and Community Development while Schaefer was mayor and served as his secretary of employment and economic development when he became governor.

During Evans' tenure with the city, he often received four or five "action grams" a week, with someone in City Hall tracking carbon copies of the notice to ensure follow-up.

"Nine times out of 10 it was, 'OK, I can do that,' " Evans said. "One time out of 10 it was, 'Is he still on that?' "

But Schaefer's infuriating tendencies also served as motivation. "Sometimes he just made us so mad we did it to spite him," Evans said.

He remembers receiving a call from the mayor one evening regarding a vacant house in the 1700 block of Lancaster St. that was nearly sold at least four times, but the deals kept falling through. Schaefer called and said he wanted the house fixed up by morning and slammed down the phone.

So, Evans and another employee went to a Sears store, bought some curtains and installed them in the first- and second-floor windows — no small feat in a house with no floors on the second story. Evans stood on a windowsill to put them up on the first floor, and his colleague stood on his shoulders to put up the ones on the second floor, he said.

"The next morning, the old man drove by and called me, chuckling," Evans said. "Typical of him, he followed up to see if I did anything." Schaefer eventually owned the house.

Schaefer also had low tolerance for bureaucratic excuses. Sometimes, staff would advise him that a proposed solution was a good one, but politically, a poor choice. "He would shake that stubby little finger at us and say, 'I'm in charge of the politics and The Sun paper,' " Evans said. "You do what's the right thing to do, and I will take care of the politics, and I will take care of the media."

Barbara J. Bonnell served as director of communications for Charles Center Inner Harbor Management Inc., an organization focused on attracting new development downtown. She did not receive frequent notices from Schaefer. But when he requested, in writing, that her office fix a bench in the second row of seats at Rash Field or repaint a section of the McKeldin Fountain, workers "hopped to it," she said.

"The important thing was to reply promptly. We had been trained to do that," Bonnell said.

Staff would always include a time frame for completion.

"Woe unto you if you did not meet the timetable, because there was someone at City Hall watching," she said.

The notes weren't taken as a reprimand, she said, but rather a sign that he had taken an interest in their projects.

"He was a watchdog, and he was very careful of how things went, very concerned with detail," she said. "You know what is in the details — it really is the success or failure of any project."

Schaefer encouraged his employees to report problems, as well. Al De Salvo, who worked as a community planner from 1970 to 1975, remembers the green forms stocked in all city-owned vehicles.

"If we saw anything … in the community, we needed to write it down and send it to the mayor's office," he said.

Schaefer took these "flush and guts" elements of city infrastructure seriously.

"He understood the importance of dealing with complaints in the community, whether it was a barking dog or a pothole," De Salvo said.

And he got people engaged, creating a Valentine's Day promotion to fill potholes, paint hearts on them and send cards to suitors in exchange for a fee. In later years, he also added a "Pothole Patch Doll" to the incentives. De Salvo remembers sending a photo of a Valentine's pothole fixed in front of his Erdman Avenue house to his girlfriend, now his wife.

Schaefer also created an "Impossible Task" unit to address persistent issues, such as dumping on vacant lots on Race Street.

Accountability was critical to Schaefer, said Rogers. He remembers being called in during the mid-1970s to create a system to reroute complaints that constituents called into the wrong office — if a report of a pothole came to the health department, for example.

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