Mayor has a lot of explaining to do Duties are misunderstood by many

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In a fifth-grade classroom at Hampstead Elementary School, Mayor Clint Becker recently explained to a group of 10-year-olds what a mayor does. And what he can't do.

One of the children asked him if he could help keep Carroll County farmland.

"I really can't do that," he said. He told the children that there are no farms in Hampstead, and that county officials control development in the farmland around the town.

The session with the children illustrates to some degree the depth of public misconception about Mayor Becker's authority. He is getting used to explaining his job; he spends a lot of time trying to explain it to adults.

"I don't have all the power that everybody thinks I have," the Hampstead mayor said in an interview. "Most people think I can do anything in the town I want. It doesn't work that way."

The fifth-graders wanted to know why Mayor Becker doesn't open a new elementary school to ease overcrowding in theirs. They wanted to know why he doesn't stop growth in the Hampstead area.

Their elders often ask the mayor the same questions.

Mayor Becker said a lack of understanding of how town government works is "very prevalent" among Hampstead residents.

The mayor said his son has sometimes told people his father is Hampstead's mayor. The response was, "We got a mayor?"

So Mayor Becker spends much of his time explaining that the county decides when to build new schools and that the master plans for Hampstead and Carroll County dictate how land will be used.

The town's Planning and Zoning Commission decides whether a proposed development meets local laws, and the Town Council writes those laws -- not the mayor.

Frequently, he said, residents say things such as, " 'We think that the mayor and council ought to stop growth in Hampstead.'

"Well, we can't, for all intents and purposes."

The mayor's official involvement with the Planning and Zoning Commission is limited to appointing members, he said.

"Once I appoint them, that's it," he said. "I don't have any influence. I can't tell them what to do."

The commission has five members appointed to five-year terms.

Residents who want a zoning decision changed must go through an independent town body -- the Board of Zoning Appeals.

Even the zoning commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals cannot stop growth, Mayor Becker said, though they can help to shape it.

The mayor's duties include running council meetings, supervising the town manager and the police chief and representing Hampstead in mayors' meetings and meetings with county and state officials.

He also talks to residents -- in the hardware store or the grocery store -- and gets four or five calls each week at home from residents who have questions or complaints.

"Probably about half the job is attending meetings," Mayor Becker said.

In addition to Town Council meetings, there are other gatherings, such as those of the county adequate facilities committee.

Mayor Becker said he can help town residents with certain problems. For instance, he said, if someone's neighbor is causing a noisy disturbance, the mayor can ask the police to check it out. If streets are not plowed after a snowfall, he can straighten out the mess.

"In some cases," he said, "you can't please people. . . . Everybody wants their street plowed first."

AHe said he often has to tell residents that he has no vote on the Hampstead Town Council -- not even a tie-breaking vote.

"I don't pass laws," he said. "I don't have any way to guide them [the council members] other than my own powers of persuasion. . . . My say-so carries about as much weight as the average citizen's."

Councilwoman Jacqueline Hyatt said the mayor does not exert much sway over the council's decisions, but he can shape discussion because he can bring up matters that might have escaped the council's attention.

"I think that a mayor is in a seat to know everything that's going on," she said.

During the day, Mayor Becker is assistant manager for safety with Bell Atlantic in Westminster.

For his work in Hampstead, he is paid $1,000 a year -- about $19 a week for an average of about 10 hours' work.

"People think that I get paid a lot more than I do," he said.

said many people who have moved to Hampstead in recent years have come from Baltimore County, which does not have incorporated towns. They don't understand what a mayor can and can't do.

That migration "may well be a big part of the problem," said Jonathan Magruder, staff research associate with the Maryland Municipal League.

But he said the league is encouraging more awareness of local government throughout the state.

Last year, he said, Gov. William Donald Schaefer declared April 26-30 "Municipal Government Week," and the Maryland Municipal League encouraged local government officials to visit schools and hold open houses to teach people about municipal functions. The league hopes to conduct a similar event this year, he said.

Some people who live outside Hampstead don't realize they are not within the town's jurisdiction, Mr. Magruder said. One cause of this confusion, he said, is zip code areas that cross municipal and even county boundaries.

Mayor Becker said one of his frustrations has been a lack of input from citizens.

For example, he said, as the Town Council has pondered what to do with the dilapidated Hampstead train station, council members got little comment from residents, "pro, con or anything else."

Citizens need to inform themselves about what is going on, he said, contending that only about 1 percent of people who buy homes in Hampstead bother to check the master plan at the town office to see if development is planned for adjacent land.

"I'm as guilty as anybody else," he said. He noted that he became involved in local government several years ago, after he bought a home and was surprised when condominiums sprouted up on the opposite corner.

Mayor Becker also said that when vacancies arise on town commissions, "It's very difficult to fill them, in most cases."

The last time a spot on the Hampstead Planning and Zoning Commission was available, he said, "We had very few people that were really interested."

However, Mr. Magruder said there is a shred of good news for local government officials. In national surveys that study how much people trust public officials, "Municipal government usually comes out on top.

"We are the government closest to the people," Mr. Magruder said. "The distance, both geographically and communication-wise, is not very far."

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