Annapolis mayor-elect Mike Pantelides faced the first major test of his term well before the swearing-in ceremony scheduled for today. Almost immediately after the last provisional and absentee ballots were counted to give him a narrow edge over incumbent Josh Cohen, news broke that Alderman Ross Arnett planned to introduce legislation that would shift Annapolis to a city manager form of government in which the mayor serves as little more than a figurehead.
As a matter of public policy, that's not an inherently terrible idea. Many cities, including some much larger than Annapolis, have had success with that kind of system. Other cities do well with strong mayors. And either system can be a disaster. The position of mayor in Annapolis is on the weak side as it is, and the city has had debates about this issue over the years, on a number of occasions at Mr. Arnett's instigation.
But the timing was terrible. Mr. Arnett is a Democrat. Mr. Pantelides is a Republican, the first one to become Annapolis' mayor in 16 years, and the national conservative media, including talk show host Rush Limbaugh, went ballistic at the notion that as soon as a Republican got power, a Democrat would try to strip him of it.
Rather than joining the outrage parade, Mr. Pantelides called Mr. Arnett, talked to him about it and proclaimed that the whole mess had been an "overreaction," particularly given that Mr. Arnett had proposed the same thing at least twice before under Democratic mayors. Meanwhile, Mr. Arnett decided not to pursue the matter.
It was a shrewd play for the political neophyte mayor-elect, and it gives us reason to hope that his friendly manner, good will and evident good instincts will help him overcome his inexperience in what has historically been a fairly unforgiving job. Despite the efforts of the state Republican Party to cast his election as a great partisan victory, Mr. Pantelides, 30, appears driven by a genuine conviction that he can do a better job of managing his hometown and making its government more responsive to residents and businesses alike.
The job won't be easy. Mr. Cohen was also young when he was elected, but he had experience on both the city and county councils, and it didn't stop him from suffering public wrath over tax and water rate increases, development projects and the management of the city's historic downtown. He literally walked the plank into Annapolis harbor during the campaign to apologize for failing to get the city's Market House reopened when he said he would, but the self-imposed public soaking was not enough to earn the voters' forgiveness. He lost by about five dozen votes.
Yet Mr. Pantelides may soon find reason to thank Mr. Cohen for his services. The departing mayor took over a city whose budget was in disarray, but thanks to some of the less popular decisions he made, Annapolis' finances are now stable. The city also now has long-term labor agreements with key unions that will help bring predictability to city budgets and services for the next few years. Mr. Pantelides ran on a platform of fiscal conservatism, but he does not appear to be animated by a predisposition against government so much as a conviction that a fresh set of eyes and a determination to be tighter with the taxpayers' pennies can obviate the need for further tax increases, and maybe even allow for some roll-backs.
But now the controversies that helped sink Mr. Cohen are Mr. Pantelides' to handle, and the new mayor will likely soon discover that it's easier to criticize from the outside than it is to take ownership of issues like the redevelopment of Annapolis' City Dock. He will also be coping with a City Council that has seven Democrats and just one Republican. That doesn't mean he will be stymied at every turn — local government issues are not inherently partisan — but it does mean that the council will likely be less inclined to try to help him succeed than it was for Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Pantelides will almost surely make some mistakes in the months ahead — that's almost inevitable for someone who has never held public office before. The question will be how quickly he can learn from them. As one Annapolis politico put it, the city goes through mayors like Elizabeth Taylor did husbands. The only way they've tended to stick around is by keeping a low profile and not doing much of anything. We don't get the sense that Mr. Pantelides intends to follow that model, so if he is going to succeed, he's going to have to show a lot more of the deftness he brought to the Arnett controversy in the years ahead.
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