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Q&A: Robert Wack looks back on time on Westminster Common Council

Robert Wack give advice during a bootcamp event at Ting Makerspace in Westminster on July 18, 2018.
Robert Wack give advice during a bootcamp event at Ting Makerspace in Westminster on July 18, 2018. (Ken Koons/Carroll County Times file)

The City of Westminster held an election on Tuesday, May 14, and for the first time in 15 years, Dr. Robert Wack was not on the ballot.

Initially appointed to fill a vacancy on the Westminster Common Council in January 2003, Wack was on the ballot — and won election — in May 2003, and again in 2007, 2011 and 2015, but decided that after four full terms it was time to turn to his other endeavors outside of political life.

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Those endeavors are many: A former U.S. Army physician and pediatrician, Wack is currently the medical director for continuum of care at Frederick Memorial Hospital; serves on the board of the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory, or MAGIC; and has written a book, “Time Bomber,” a speculative fictional work of military history.

The Times recently caught up with Wack to hear his reflections on his time in office, what’s next for him and his advice for others who hope to become involved in local politics.

Q: Let’s start with the end: After more than four terms on the Westminster Common Council, you decided not to run again. Why the decision to retire now?

A: It's been a good run, we accomplished a lot. Several major initiatives I had a hand in are either complete, or maturing into stable success, so it feels like a good time to step away and take a break.

Q: And what about the beginning? Can you take us back to when you first ran four council? What were you doing and what made you decided to get involved and run for office?

A: It all started when I was talked (OK, coerced) into running for state delegate back in the summer of 2002 because no one had filed and the deadline was a week away. Lisa Breslin and Greg Pecoraro convinced me to do it, and we quickly put together a pretty good campaign.

Despite the effort, I was creamed on Election Day, but in that same cycle, Greg moved over to an administrative position in Baltimore County, which created an opening on the council. Several people approached me to apply for the vacancy, so I did, and the rest is history.

At the time, I was just coming off the exciting experience of my first tech startup, and had also been very involved in the community response for emergency planning after 9/11, so it seemed like a logical next step.

Q: Looking back, what are some of the things you are most proud of being part of during your time on the council?

A: My top three accomplishments are the Wakefield Valley Park acquisition, the tax increase in 2011 and the Westminster Fiber Network.

It amuses me no end that the right-wingers are so horrified about me saying I'm proud of the tax increase, but it was absolutely the right thing to do at the time, given the financial state of the city, the needs that weren't being addressed, and the demands of our citizens. Rather than continuing the fantasy that lowering taxes would somehow magically raise revenue, we bit the bullet, all of us, and made the hard decision. There were all sorts of predictions of catastrophe from the usual sources, none of which came true, and the city is in the best financial condition in generations, with great prospects for the future. Debunking conservative tax dogma gives me enormous satisfaction.

Q: What about some of the more challenging things? Any regrets?

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A: I wish I could have devoted more time to the job. Even though the position is essentially volunteer, the responsibilities are 24/7, and as the officers ultimately responsible for the conduct of city business, it can only be as good as the people overseeing it. Some of the things that didn't work out as well often developed because of lapses in management. Staff need good managers, managers need good directors, directors need good senior leaders. Everyone needs to be accountable, and that takes time and energy.

It never ends, and I wish I could have given more, but work, family, and life intervene.

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Q: What advice would you have for other people who are considering getting involved in local government? And do we need more people interested in getting involved?

A: Get in the mix. We always need more people involved. The community will only be as good as the effort everyone makes to make it the best possible. It doesn't just happen. Engagement and involvement are key. I made it a practice to thank anyone who came to a council meeting, even when it was to yell at us for something, because unless people are engaged, it's difficult to make positive change.

For those who do become engaged, think big, think long-term, and don't let the naysayers and rock throwers dissuade you. When something riles up a loud faction, remember that the loudest voices are often the most misinformed, and rarely stick around. Get out and talk to people, and cultivate the people who are also out in the community doing things and making changes. Talk is cheap. Find the doers, and listen to them. The kooks can make your life unpleasant, but they rarely accomplish anything beyond that.

Q: You managed to do a lot of things in addition to be an elected official — writing a book, practicing medicine — what’s next for you now that you don’t also have the city council agenda on your plate?

A: Back to writing, hopefully to finish several big projects which have languished because of competing responsibilities. I'm also going jump into some community environmental projects which hopefully you'll be hearing more about soon.

Of course, I'll still be working to ensure the success of the Westminster Fiber Network, mostly through my volunteering with MAGIC, finding, nurturing, and accelerating tech and entrepreneurs in our community. I'm sure I'll get roped into some other nonprofit work as well. And there's my paying job ...

Q: Lastly, what’s your favorite thing or things about Westminster?

A: My favorite things about Westminster: all our great restaurants, all within walking distance, and the ability to get a wide variety of foods and beverages.

All our trees. I love our trees.

I love our city government. I think our city workers do fantastic work, and we have a very highly functioning local government for a community our size.

Finally, I love that even today meeting new people in our town, invariably they know someone who knows someone who went to school with my neighbor's wife and in ninth grade ... you get the picture. I love that.

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