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Monday, July 27, 2009

Wenschhof Interviews City of Frederick, Md. Alderman Candidate Michael O'Connor

George Wenschhof

Today, my guest is Michael O'Connor who is vying for one of the five seats on the Board of Aldermen in The City of Frederick, Maryland. The primary election will be held on September 15. Democratic voters will be choosing five from nine candidates on the ballot to move on to the November 3 general election.

Mr. O'Connor and I are communicating live via computer from different locations in the city and I have not previously shared the questions I will be asking him today.

We will place the link to this conversation in the right hand margin so it can be accessed and read at a convenient time for our readers who may have missed the live discussion.

Michael, it's nice to have you as my guest today. This will be a little bit of a role reversal for you as you previously were the moderator of a local cable TV political discussion show "Pressing Issues". Prior to that, you also were the news anchor for a local cable TV news program that was discontinued years ago. I also remember when you ran for state delegate in district 3-a and lost in the primary back in 2002.

GW - Your background would indicate you have a solid knowledge of the issues facing the voters in the City of Frederick. Let's get started with you telling the voters a little about your family, the work you are doing now and why you are running for alderman.

As a follow up, why do you feel voters should choose you to be one of their five choices on the ballot on September 15?

MOC - Thank you George for this opportunity. I think this is a great way to use technology to get out information and I appreciate your committment to the electoral process.

I am a life-long Frederick County resident, growing up on Schley Avenue, just a few blocks from where I live now on Lee Place, with my wife of 16 years, Tammy, and our two daughters (and two dogs). It has been wonderful to be able to raise my children in the same community I was raised in. And I want this to be a great community for them and their children, as well, if they choose to make Frederick their home.

I currently work as the Business Manager at Saint Katharine Drexel church, on Opossumtown Pike, in Frederick, which involves managing all aspects of a non-profit organization from budget and finance, to human resources. But as you indicated, much of my professional experience has been in media, and it is my church and media experience that I want to put to work for the citizens of the City of Frederick. I have always looked at the work I did in Radio and Television locally, and now with my church, as public service, so I consider running for Alderman, a natural extension.

We are facing challenging times ahead, but I think that also means we have great opportunities. I think the voters should consider me to be one their five choices on September 15th because I have held a unique front row seat on City and County operations over the last nearly 20 years. I have had the great priviledge to watch government in way most people have never seen. That experience has taught me ask the right questions and challenge assumptions. And I will continue to do so once elected.

I am looking forward to having the tables turned, so to speak, so let's get started.


GW - One of the more controversial decisions made by mayor Jeff Holtzinger and the board of aldermen during this past term was the approval of the early buy-out retirement plan. Some city staff, including the Mayor's executive assistant Ron Tobin, took the two year buy-out only to be hired back by the city. These hire backs along with a generous two-year buy out has angered many city voters.

Voters wonder why aldermen did not question this dubious retirement plan. One of the challenges facing aldermen in office is being able to reach consensus and move forward on issues while at the same time being watchful as to what is in the best interests of the residents of the city without coming across as an obstructionist.

How will you convince voters, that if elected, you will not just be a rubber stamp on the issues that come before you?

MOC - Let me address the question both specifically and more broadly. The buyout is exactly the kind of issue my experience would have let me address more effectively, I think. The problem was not that the buyout was proposed, though two years was extraordinarily generous, and I would not have supported it. It was that no one ever asked the simple question, "what if an overwhelming majority of elegible employees take it?" The Mayor & Board worked on faulty assumptions that no one challenged. And we'll be paying for that mistake for years.

The job of the Alderman is to work on behalf of the citizens, not the Mayor, and not the rest of the Board. My track record on the Board's on which I've served, such as 10 years on the Frederick County Workforce Development Board, and 10 years ago, as the Co-Chair of Aspire Frederick, is to ask questions with the goal towards building consensus. I think if you have a Mayor and Board, truly committed to working on behalf of the City, who don't view information as proprietary, and who are more concerned with getting things done than getting credit, we'll have progress. I won't be either a rubber stamp or an obstructionist. Neither is my style.


GW - Another controversial decision on the horizon for the current mayor and board is the annexation of three properties known as the Crum, Thatcher and Summers farms.

It appears obvious Mayor Holtzinger is pushing these annexations forward for approval prior to the next mayor and board taking office.

Do you feel these annexations are premature at this point and do you feel this decision should be left for the next mayor and board to decide? In addition, rumors abound a petition drive will take place if approval is granted to force this decision to a referendum. Would you support a petition drive, if started?

MOC - We, the candidates, had the opportunity to share our thoughts on this with the Frederick News-Post, and this is what I told them: While annexation is the only way for the City to guarantee it controls what happens at its borders, I believe the higher priority today should be infill and redevelopment, particularly the Route 40 West corridor and east Frederick. I do not believe that the City can adequately fund needed infrastructure improvements, even with developer participation, that must accompany the pending annexations. The next administration should be given the opportunity to work with our citizens, Frederick County, and the applicants and not have this very important issue rushed before an election.

So yes, premature is a good word. I understand the annexation of these properties is in the City's Comprehensive Plan. I understand that development of these properties was discussed as part of of the Potomac River pipeline agreement, but our residents have more questions. Either way these annexations have become political, so it would be my preference to wait. If the current administration chooses not to, I would support the petition drive.

I think eventually these properties will be part of the City of Frederick, but I don't think that time is now, in light of the infrastructure challenges, and the general lack of support from the residents I have talked to. We have great infill and redevelopment opportunities, our priority should be there.


GW - With the national economy suffering, it is highly likely management of the financial resources of the city will be a priority for the next mayor and board of aldermen.

The current city administration will be leaving 120 million in bonded infrastructure debt to the incoming mayor and board. Balancing the budget with reduced revenues from property taxes due to lower assessments will not be easy.

If elected, are there specific budget areas you would suggest to the next mayor and board which would help to reduce current spending?

MOC - I have had the great pleasure to visit nearly all of the city's Neighborhood Advisory Councils over the last several months, and from those meetings and in other conversations with residents, I can tell you two areas that I would not consider for spending reductions, police, and code enforcement. Everything else needs to be on the table. And the reality is that in government, when you start talking about reduced spending, you are talking about people's jobs. That is a issue I will not take lightly.

One specific area I think we can look at is trash collection. Since the large blue bin recycling program began I have found I put my trash out about once every two weeks, just like the recyclables. But the garbage trucks still come twice a week. I think we can reduce trash collection. Additionally, offering recycling to businesses might generate savings by reducing the city's tipping fees. Such proposals may not reduce the budget by millions, but they do represent an effort to better align the available resources with the services the city requires. I think that's what our taxpayes expect.

Putting our economic development focus on small business and infill and redevelopment possibilities will also allow us to look at expanding our business tax base, without the infrastructure cost associated with residential expansion.


GW - I read with interest on your campaign website; , you acknowledge while the financial timing may have been bad, the condemnation of the property known as the "Hargett farm" for use of a city park was preferable over the construction of more homes in that area of the city.

While the acquisition cost has been budgeted, the funds needed for build out and the development time frame for the park has not been determined.

You indicate as the future park is a regional park in the sense county residents are sure to use it as well, the county government should partner with the city and share in the development costs. Tell the voters a little more about this proposal.

MOC - Thanks for plugging the website, George. There is additional information there about many of the policy issues we are talking about, in addition to information about how citizens can get involved.

The Hargett property represents an interesting challenge. The city has purchased it to the great relief of residents throughout the west end who don't need more cars on already overtaxed roadways of Butterfly Lane, McCain Drive, and Hillcrest Drive, not to mention the interchange aat 180 and 351. But as you indicated, there is no funding for development. The residential development of this property was also in the discussion regarding Potomac River water. Could it's removal from that pipeline, so to speak, be what's pushing Crum, Thatcher, & Summers now?

Mayor Holtzinger campaigned on getting a park in the west end. Mission accomplished to the extent that we have the land. But now what? I want to reach out to the County, which will benefit from a park in that area, and talk about how development moves forward. Perhaps that is something that should have been done prior to the acquisition. I have been struck in this instance, as well as with the annexation process, and recently in conversations about improvements to Route 15/I-270, how little it appears the City and County talk about our common interests. I have no idea where the fault lies, and frankly I don't care, but I'd like to work at improving cooperation.


GW - You also note on your campaign website your desire to increase economic development in all areas of the city.

Typically, commercial development is a plus-plus for municipal governments as it is less strain on the infrastructure than residential development and it creates local jobs.

Share with the voters some of your thoughts in this area.

MOC - There is no question that the vitality and health of Frederick as a whole is dependent on the success of business in our Downtown, but while our focus has been on the downtown, some of our outlying areas have rightfully felt neglected. The Golden Mile tax credits passed during the Dougherty Administration were a great start, but I think we need to look at whether or not there is more we can do to accelerate redevelopment of this corridor. There has been some discussion of Small Area Plans as part of the Comprehensive Plan rewrite. This area is prime candidate for such a plan.

Additionally, the East Street Extension, and now the groundbreaking for the middle section of Monocacy Boulevard, are opening up hundreds of acres of property for development. I attended one of the East Frederick Rising visioning meetings, and we have many talented and creative minds ready and willing to make exciting things happen. The city needs to rely on these resources and others like them.

I think an important component of helping business, especially small ones, get going is the need to have an ongoing reviews and rewrites of our Land Management Code and Historical Preservation Commission guidelines. These documents must be living, breathing tools for the city that can be modified as conditions warrant. We have tremendous opportunities with the Route 40 corridor and east Frederick to build interesting, sustainable, mixed use communities that will enhance the quality of life for all Frederick residents.


GW - Your last question pertains to the Democratic mayoral candidates. I have written most aldermen candidates will not publicly state their support for a mayoral candidate in a contested primary. Last week, when Alderman Donna Kuzemchak was my guest, she indicated her support for former mayor Jennifer Dougherty while also saying she would be able to work with whoever was elected.

Do you have a favorite candidate for mayor and if so, why?

MOC - I have not been approached by any of the candidates for Mayor for an endorsement. Neither have I sought to align with any of them for one very practical reason, I am concentrating on my campaign and I know they are concentrating on their campaigns. Like Donna, I believe that once elected I can work with any of the candidates. We have a very strong field in the Democratic Primary. I know that my experience and approach to the issues facing the city would be asset and it would be my honor to serve on the Board of Alderman with whomever is elected. If that sounds like weasel-wording, the only defense I can argue is, it's the truth.


GW - Michael, I want to thank you for being my guest today on Air-it-Out with George Wenschhof.

At this time, I would like to give you some time for some closing remarks.

MOC - Once again George, I want to thank you. This has been a lot of fun, and I appreciate what you are doing for the voters in offering this opportunity to the candidates.

You can visit my website, to get more information about my campaign, or to request a yard sign, or to contribute, including an upcoming fundraising Friday, July 31st, at Kidwiler (Rosedale) Park, on Schley Avenue, from 5 to 8 pm. It's a Family Picnic, $25 per adult, so bring the kids for free.

It has been my priviledge over the past nearly 20 years to interact with so many elected officials who really understood, what public service is all about. That's why I am running. In my current professional life, we use the word stewardship. It's not my city, it's our city, and the Mayor and Board of Aldermen have the responsibility to be good stewards of all our resources, from the taxes we collect to the land and buildings we own and operate.

The issues in the campaign are numerous. And I want to hear from you. I make no promises except that when you talk to me, I will listen. And when you elect me Alderman for the City of Frederick, I will work with you and for you to make Frederick the best is can be. Thank you, and I ask for your vote on September 15th.


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