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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wenschhof Interviews City of Frederick, Md. Alderman Candidate Josh Bokee

George Wenschhof

Today, my guest is Josh Bokee. He is one of nine Democratic candidates running for one of the five positions on the City of Frederick Board of Aldermen. The primary will be held on September 15 and the general election is on November 3, 2009. Please also keep in mind the deadline to register to vote prior to the primary is August 17.

Mr. Bokee and I are communicating via computer from different locations in the city and I have not shared my questions with him prior to him joining me live online. As this is a live conversation, remember to click on your "Refresh" button every fifteen minutes or so, to see the next question and answer.

The link to this discussion will be placed in the right hand margin of our Home Page so it can be easily read at a time convenient to our readers who miss the live conversation.

I met Mr. Bokee for the first time a few weeks ago for lunch at Beans and Bagels, my favorite downtown deli. While, he is the youngest of the Democratic candidates for aldermen, he has served on several local Boards of Directors of non-profits, been the vice chair of his Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) and presently is on the City Planning and Zoning Commission.

At this time I would like to welcome Josh and thank him for appearing live online on Air-it-out with George Wenschhof.

GW - Josh, let's start off with you telling the voters a little more about yourself and your family. The Democratic voters will choose five of the nine candidates who appear on the primary ballot to move on to the general election. Share with us why you are running for alderman and why voters should chose you when they vote on September 15.
JB - Thanks, George for the opportunity today to have this dialogue. I'm running because I love this town and all that it has to offer. I'm also running because I would like our son Spencer, who turns two this October, to have the same if not greater opportunities to be able to live here and work here if he so chooses. I think that's a feeling many parents across the city share for their own sons and daughters. My wife, Katie, and I live in the city neighborhood of Whittier and we have been there for about five years now. One of the things that has always struck me about our community of Frederick is the incredible civic pride and sense of volunteerism that people have here. It's that same spirit that led me to want to lend my own experiences and talents to help our community.

By way of background I was trained in business, economics, and planning and my career has spanned from working in the non-profit community, to serving as a policy analyst in the public sector and now currently working in the private sector. I've learned about how important it is to make every dollar count, the need to set clear goals when working with large organizations and how important it is to be able to ask the right questions to get the information that's needed in order to make a good decision.

Giving back is why I got involved in our Neighborhood Advisory Councils (NAC) where I worked with other neighborhood leaders to help bring other NAC members together at city-wide meetings where we brought to the attention of city officials the issues of code enforcement, communication and safety. It's also why I have been honored to serve on the city's planning commission where I have worked with my colleagues to help lay the groundwork for further reinvestment for our neighborhoods and commercial centers.

These are challenging times that we are all living through today and that's why I believe there are at least three things we should do as a city in order to keep moving forward in a positive direction.

1. We need a sustainable budget and one that recognizes and begins to address the squeeze many folks feel with regard to their property taxes, especially those who are on limited monthly incomes. We also need to work with our departments to be innovative and ensure that the right services are getting to the right people in need.

2. We need real vision when it comes to a city wide economic development strategy. Frederick should be the Entrepreneur Capital of Maryland! In other words, Frederick should be the first place someone thinks of when starting, expanding or wanting to relocate a business. We need build our base of quality employers and jobs so we can maintain our quality of life and ensure we can pay for the essential services that we all expect.

3. We need to reinvest in our neighborhoods and revitalize our commercial centers. This last issue is a real passion of mine as we need to continue the downtown renewal but also extend our focus and investment into all neighborhoods in the city to help ensure that none are left behind.
GW - The proposed annexations of three farms in to the City of Frederick has created mixed reactions from the voters and from the candidates for aldermen. You have a unique perspective as you voted on them as a member of the City of Frederick Planning and Zoning Commission.

The two proposed northern annexations of the Crum and Thatcher properties are located, I believe, adjacent to Route 15. One is located on the east side and the other on the west side of Route 15. The third annexation known as the Summers property is located on the west side of Frederick, close to what was once referred to as the "golden mile".

Some have said the annexations are premature and the Frederick County Commissioners have signaled they will not approve. Their negative vote will prohibit any development for five years even if the city moves forward and annexes the properties.

Tell the voters how you voted on these properties as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission and why.
JB - Thanks, George. I did not recommend the Summers property because after reviewing the geography of the parcel, its relationship to the existing neighborhoods and listening to public testimony it seemed to me at the time that the percentage of commercial that was being proposed by some would not be a good fit.
Looking at the larger picture, I do believe that the city's primary focus will be and should be on reinvestment into existing neighborhoods and commercial centers. Some call that infill development, others 'smart growth' - whatever the term of choice that's where most of our opportunities for job creation will come from. There are great opportunities to work with residents and businesses of existing corridors such as the Golden Mile, the East Side, North Market Street and so on.
When I think back to my son Spencer, and other kids his age, I try to think about how we'll create opportunities for them to want to stay or move back to Frederick with good housing and a good job. In order to do that we'll need a balanced approach when it comes to our future and as a planning commissioner that is what I have attempted to do.
Each annexation must be treated on its own merits and strengths and weaknesses. If the request is not a good fit, we should not recommend them (like I did concerning Summers). However, if a request does fill a potential need for our city, in this case potential job creation which would further diversify our tax base, then accepting them should come only on our terms as city residents.
In the case of Crum and Thatcher, which I did recommend, my recommendation only came after a lot of thought and as part of larger discussions about the city's overall future comprehensive plan (almost 17 workshops so far), our sewer and water capacity, future employer needs, natural resource concerns, infrastructure, and economic and demographic trends. I also attached to my recommendation that before any development occurs we needed a joint area plan and a strong public participation process (in this case a city stakeholder's group) that would work to ensure that we get only what we want from beginning to end. I don't treat any recommendation lightly, whether its a yea or nay, because as a resident of the city I want only the best for all of us.
GW - I noticed on your campaign website;, you have listed various programs you would like to promote if you were elected alderman.

One of your ideas that caught my attention was a program designed to help local businesses grow which you call a "One-stop Help Shop". You also suggest this should be done in partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce.

Tell the voters what you envision with this program and how you would go about getting it started.

JB - While the city already has a one stop shop for permitting and planning applications I'd like to help our economic development staff by boosting their current efforts in working with folks who would like to start a new business. We have a great economic development staff and they work very hard on our behalf and if we can reconfigure some of our current resources it would allow them to reach even more folks. The Chamber of Commerce is also doing a great job in working with our local business community and there is a lot of talent and ideas to be tapped there for our benefit. As I mentioned in my first reply, Frederick should be considered the Entrepreneur Capital of Maryland - and branding such an initiative as a One Stop Help Shop would further our ability to do that.


GW - The City Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has once again had the spotlight shine on them as a result of a recent decision to fine a property owner for failure to abide by a decision they had made.

Ever since the creation of the downtown Historic District, there have periodically been flare ups of disagreement between property owners and the commission charged with overseeing the historic district guidelines.

While disagreements have transpired and arguments have taken place over perceived onerous renovation specifications, the downtown has benefited tremendously by the creation of a historic district.

What made this incident different than in the past was the intervention by Mayor Jeff Holtzinger who allegedly instructed staff to disregard enforcing the levied fine on the property owner.

If you had been aldermen at the time of this latest incident, how would you have liked to see it be resolved and do you believe the mayor should have intervened when an appeal process is in place for property owners.

JB - We need to be able to strike a balance between protecting the historic nature of our downtown (which in my mind is one of the things that gives Frederick its unique and wonderful qualities) and being a location where residents and businesses want to invest their time and resources into. After all, a living, thriving downtown full of commerce and people is one of the best ways to protect in the long term our historic buildings and character. I think its very unfortunate that the case had to escalate like it did and while technically the Mayor does have latitude as to what should be a code enforcement priority this entire issue points to a larger concern about faith in the process.

I have publicly stated that the Mayor/Board should take several workshops, listen to the concerns by applicants, understand how the existing process works by staff and then draw up a list of issues that should be addressed. Give those issues to a stakeholders group that represents all parties and give them three months to come back with specific recommendations. The Mayor/Board can then decide what to take action on and what needs additional work and send the committee back for another three months if need be. Only by creating a constructive process to address the issues can we in turn restore faith in the system. One last comment - I think everyone involved with the HPC has only the best interests in mind for the city - its not an easy job. But if we can work together, we can help applicants with how to be successful in getting through the process and be able to invest in our downtown - a win win for everyone!


GW - I want to go back to your campaign website and another idea you are promoting on it. You discuss developing a city "Phone/Web Issues Hotline". You say "Call it in, Track it, Resolve it". Tell us a little more about this program and how it will work as this will sound intriguing to voters. Also, how would you go about implementing this program?

JB - 'Report It, Track It, Resolve It' (I adjusted the name slightly) is an idea that allows residents to better connect with our local government. Lets take the example of a streetlight that is out. A resident can either phone the issue into a central intake number or go on the website and type the concern in. The city department then assigns the broken streetlight a tracking number and as its being processed and worked on the resident can track its progress and see when its resolved.

For residents they get to see progress being made - or better understand why it may take a few weeks to repair the light (perhaps a bulb needs to be ordered, that information would be captured in the notes). This helps the departments as well because they'll be able to better keep residents informed of the work that they're doing on our behalf. Public works is a good place to start as it is my understanding that an internal tracking system already exist. While modifications would need to be made, we should be able to create a user friendly interface - I call it City Website 3.0. As we get the system in place and better understand the strengths and weaknesses we can expand it to include larger issues and concerns.

In addition all of this information can be collected and analyzed to help give us another stream data input in which to view what the major concern trends are and how we're resolving them. I'd like to see the Board play a more active role in reviewing and analyzing performance metric data and helping the Mayor to set customer service benchmarks which can make a real difference for our residents. We have a great city workforce and I think these steps will help us to better manage our resources. This is critical given the prospect of difficult budget conditions that are ahead of us.


GW - The City of Frederick early retirement buy-out fiasco has angered many city voters. Ron Tobin, a Republican candidate for Mayor, who presently is employed in an "at will" position is but one example of a extremely flawed program. The odds of Mr. Tobin being continued in his position under a new administration were slim, at best. Yet, he received two years of salary and was hired back by Mayor Jeff Holtzinger.

Voters are concerned not enough questions were asked by the Board of Aldermen. What questions would you have asked if you have been a City of Frederick Aldermen and had this program presented to you? Would you have agreed to a two year buy-out and an immediate re-hire of the person who took the early retirement?

JB - I remember thinking when discussions regarding the buy out were taking place why some felt the need to move forward so quickly since this initiative wasn't directly tied to the existing city operating budget that was under consideration. I wouldn't have voted for the current early retirement package and I wouldn't have voted that quickly either. However, the vote has been taken, the plan is in place and now its time to move forward and look towards how we can work together to improve the overall process and climate for making decisions.

If we can work together to move the Board towards utilizing and structuring their workshops for more regular, quarterly reviews of issues and departments (and the budget itself before we get to the usual budget season) I believe that will go a long way towards being in a position to ask better questions and get better information ahead of time. By the way, I think members of our Board work hard and have the best interests in mind for the city. But we should be open towards working with the Mayor to try some other models of reviewing information, measuring progress and ultimately making decisions. I can bring the experiences that I have had in my own career to help us do that.


GW - Josh, for your last question before I ask you for your closing remarks, I want to talk about the money in local campaigns. I believe the pre-primary financial report by City of Frederick candidates is due on August 17. With the state of the economy being weak and disposable dollars from voters not easy to come by, what was your goal for fund raising you felt you needed to fund an effective alderman campaign? Do you believe you will be reporting a competitive total amount on August 17?

JB - This is a difficult time for both our community and for many individuals. There are many folks who have either lost their job, working reduced hours or are now doing the jobs of two or three people. In that light, I feel just fine about having the resources necessary to reach out to folks about why I'm running for Alderman. For me its about knocking on someone's door to introduce myself and I still get excited when he/she invites me in to talk about their concerns. Thats part of what is so great about our town, the fact that as a candidate you can still go from neighborhood to neighborhood and talk about the issues. Call me a geek, but its our democracy in action and its great!


GW - Josh, I want to thank you again for being my guest on Air-it-Out with George Wenschhof. At this time I would like to give you an opportunity to share with the voters some closing remarks.

JB - Thanks again, George for the opportunity. You're right, the time does go by fast!

I think I'll end by saying that we have a great community and we're fortunate to have so many qualified candidates running this year. Its a good reflection on how active our neighbors are in helping to ensure that we remain a great place to live and work.

I'm running because I believe I can give back to the community and lend my own talents and experiences to that greater effort. I have been in the trenches of the issues as a community volunteer and bring with me the knowledge to focus on the challenges that are ahead of us. My career experience allows me to bring a different perspective to the Board since I have worked in all three sectors - non-profit, public and private. I'm excited about the opportunities that are out there and if we can work together, putting our egos aside, I know we can do some great things.

I want to be an Alderman for the entire city - for every neighborhood.

My website is and my email is - please contact me if you have questions or an idea to share.

Thanks again George - its amazing what technology allows us to do and this is another great way for folks to learn more about us. All the best!


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