Two aldermen votes are not compatible

Kai Hagen

January 27, 2005

Politics is full of little ironies.

A few months ago, Frederick Alderman David Lenhart proposed a change to the city's charter requirement that mayoral candidates live in the city for at least three years before the election.

In spite of speculation that he pushed the change to enable Ronald Young or James Grimes, both former mayors, to run against Mayor Jennifer Dougherty, Mr. Lenhart has maintained he supports the change on principle. He insists it is good policy, would make the election more competitive by allowing more candidates to run, and would make the candidates more accountable to the people.

Remember that.

For the record, Lenhart and fellow aldermen Joseph Baldi and William Hall voted to reduce the residency requirement. Aldermen Marcia Hall and Donna Ramsburg opposed the change, and Mayor Dougherty vetoed it. It will now take a successful court challenge or referendum to enact the change.

If there was any doubt about whether or not Alderman Lenhart was standing on principle or politics when he supported the change, he and his fellow aldermen were quickly given another opportunity to clear it up. The Frederick City Board of Aldermen had to vote whether or not to raise aldermen's salaries from $13,500 to $20,000 a year.

Since increasing the compensation for city aldermen would probably encourage more people to run, and make the election more competitive, you might think Alderman Lenhart would vote for it on principle. You would especially think so if you knew that he has spoken in support of the idea before.

You might think so. But you would be wrong.

The same aldermen who voted to reduce the residency requirement for mayoral candidates, right away, voted against increasing the aldermen's salary from woeful to meager for those elected next time around.

Aldermen Baldi, William Hall and Lenhart -- the three Republicans on the Board of Aldermen -- chose not to support a modest change that could make the process and the board a little more accessible to the average city resident. As it is now, an alderman almost has to be independently wealthy or have a spouse who can support them.

Much as been made about the fact that the cost of housing in Frederick is making it hard for teachers, police and other public servants to live in the city. Does it make sense to pay barely $1,100 a month to the members of the Board of Aldermen, which serves as the legislative body for a fast-growing and complicated city of 60,000 people?

Alderman Donna Ramsburg doesn't think so, and after dedicating herself to the role for two four-year terms, she said, "If my financial situation does not change, I won't be running again. I just can't afford it."

It's true that the job of alderman does not come with a job description. And there's no requirement for a specific number of hours a week. It's "just what the public expects," according to Ramsburg.

But what does the public expect? At the least, someone who attends almost all the meetings, participates actively on various commissions and committee, maintains predictable office hours, is available and responsive to their constituents, and invests the time to fully understand the many and complex issues facing the city.

Alderman Ramsburg's schedule, for example, includes an afternoon workshop every Wednesday, Thursday evening meetings twice a month, a few hours in the office a couple days each week, and roughly 10 hours of reading and other research every week. There are also meetings with citizen's groups and other organizations, often in the evening.

Beyond all that, Alderman Ramsburg serves on the Planning Commission, which includes two daytime meetings and one evening meeting a month. She serves on the Education Commission, which meets one evening every month. She's a member of the Utility Committee and the Taxicab Commission, each of which meet every month.

Depending on the alderman, perhaps it isn't always going to be a full-time job. But there is no way being a responsible and hard-working alderman is compatible with having another full-time job.

And it seems to me that it isn't in the interest of the city and its residents to make the job incompatible with a healthy family life, either.

Alderman Lenhart is right about one thing. It is good public policy to make elections more competitive, and encourage more candidates to run. That's a sound principle.

In this case, however, it appears that principle, and the idea of a fair paycheck, has been trumped by the power of political payback.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at