Weekly Letter: Being Both Leader and Servant

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The agenda for my Tuesday meeting with Fort Meade Commander Colonel Michael Sapp was 1) initiating the process of creating a Military Installation Resiliency Review, 2) tightening down the process of obtaining easements from the Fort for a water line to serve Maryland City, and 3) various concerns related to schools, sidewalks, and other projects where county and Fort interests overlap.

But the meeting broadened in scope when I learned upon arrival that Colonel Sapp’s replacement, Colonel Yolanda Gore, was there to join us. Yes, the incoming garrison commander is a woman, an African American woman, and had she not intervened early in the meeting to ask for staff introductions, there would have been none. Already making her mark. But I digress.

I always joke that Fort Meade commanders are actually mayors serving almost as many constituents as Mayor Buckley in Annapolis. The difference is that they are replaced every two years, and they don’t campaign for the job.

I’ve been sad to see two commanders move on, and will feel the same way about Colonel Sapp when he leaves on August 6. He’s one of those rare people who gets both the details and the big picture, both brilliant and empathetic. 

As we delved into the minutiae of water line easements and sidewalks, I noted that Colonel Gore was looking slightly out of place. “It’s a pretty broad scope of work,” I commented. She agreed. An understatement all around.

Then Colonel Sapp got to the core of what it means to be the leader of a jurisdiction, with a question.

He described a couple of situations where residents had contacted him demanding that he fix unfixable things, immediately. Legitimate things. Things he’d like to fix, but can’t, at least not immediately.

”How do you deal with that?” was his question.

My answer was sprinkled with words like constituent services, transparency, respect, and community engagement. I might have said something about time being split between doing stuff and responding to stuff, my agenda versus others’ agenda. We are servants to the public, not just leaders.

Yesterday I had my monthly one-on-one with AACPS Superintendent Dr. Mark Bedell. He’s another leader I greatly admire, also able to see the details and the big picture. He’s had a rough month, primarily due to a backlash against his transparency, when he shared projections of next year’s class sizes. It led some parents to believe that their elementary school classes would exceed 30 students, and that the culprit was the equity mandates in Maryland’s Blueprint. 

He’s being accused of sacrificing the quality of education at schools in wealthy communities. In response, he did a thorough presentation last week on how teacher allocations are done and why. The explanation was crystal clear.

I told Dr. Bedell about my conversation with Colonel Sapp, and we discussed the challenge we have of serving as both leader and servant. We have to be good at both.

I’ve had a few tests recently of my ability to play both roles in the face of passionate advocacy, but I have the benefit of a former career as a community organizer. I was in the shoes of the rabble rouser, the person eagerly looking for perceived injustices around which I could mobilize residents. That’s why today, even when I disagree with a group's demand, I manage to feel genuine respect when the mobilization and engagement is done effectively. Here’s an example.

I am convinced that our future peace and prosperity depends in part on the availability of accessible housing for everyone. We have a supply problem and an affordability problem. Our Plan2040 calls for some seemingly contradictory things - more affordable housing, more green space, and more community engagement in the planning process.

There is a parcel of land in Pasadena zoned R1 (one dwelling per acre) adjacent to a shopping area on Mountain Road. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the Region Plan supported a request by the landowner to upzone the parcel to R10. The thinking was that there aren’t a lot of places in the area where higher density housing can be built, and that elderly residents could downsize at this site and be close to where they shop. 

Despite robust efforts to engage residents in the Region Plan process, opposition to the upzoning did not emerge until the plan was reviewed by the countywide Planning Advisory Board. The PAB responded to well-organized opponents by recommending that the parcel be left R1. I had to decide whether to send the comprehensive rezoning bill to the County Council with the SAC recommendation of R10 or the PAB’s R1. I chose to side with the SAC for three reasons. They were community based, they spent many months studying the area to identify opportunities like this one, and they were seeking to address an acute housing shortage. 

I also knew exactly what would happen if I proposed the R10 zoning. The same group that lobbied the PAB would lobby the County Council, the Councilman from the district would introduce an amendment to keep the R1 zoning, there would be a robust conversation about the tension between housing needs and neighbors’ desire to have fewer neighbors, and that a majority of the Council would practice councilmanic courtesy and support the amendment to retain R1. 

The process played out as expected. The residents showed up in “Protect Lake Shore Peninsula” shirts and the Council voted 7-0 to keep the zoning at R1. The newspaper called it a blow to affordable housing efforts.

Of course, I can question what they are protecting the peninsula from. Is there something about people who live in smaller units on a tenth of an acre that is worse than people who live in larger units on one acre? Is it better to have traffic coming on and off the peninsula for work, rather than to have housing that people who work there can afford? But the zoning on this one parcel isn’t that big a contributor to traffic problems or solutions. There is value in allowing communities a voice in their destiny. People engaged effectively and they won, and a civil debate on an important and difficult topic was had.

The outcome wasn’t what planners would call the best public policy, but they know, as do I, that we are public servants. We are proud to have created a process and honored it, and in this political climate, that is a success.

Until next week…

Steuart Pittman
Anne Arundel County Executive