Norman C. Hammond didn't know what he was getting himself into when he became a regular at Mount Airy Town Council meetings three years ago.
He got himself into politics. Or, as he describes it, "I'm participating in government."
The 70-year-old retired Army colonel and IBM manager was named to the council this month to replace Marcum N. Nance, who resigned in July to take a job in England. The four other councilmen appointed Mr. Hammond to serve the 18 months remaining in Mr. Nance's four-year term.
So Mr. Hammond has added town business to his list of activities, which includes puttering around his new house, keeping his two Burmese cats content and tending to neighborhood children.
Mr. Hammond and his wife, Jeanne, live on Rising Ridge Court in the Village Gate development. He said they moved there from Rockville about four years ago to spend their retirement in the "country."
They set out to become part of the neighborhood and have claimed the honor of being its oldest residents. Most of their neighbors are families with children younger than the Hammonds' grandchildren.
L "We are the grandparents of Village Gate," Mr. Hammond said.
Mark A. DiNardo, who lives across the street, agreed.
"They're very friendly people. We feel very, very lucky to be neighbors," said Mr. DiNardo, 34, who lives with his wife, Rebecca, and daughters, Katie, 4, and Angela, 1.
The girls don't get to see their grandparents, who live in upstate New York, very often, so the Hammonds step in. They remember the girls' birthdays and even have baby-sat for them, Mr. DiNardo said.
The Hammonds seem to enjoy their role. They publish a neighborhood directory with phone numbers, addresses and children's names and birthdays. The development is to have almost 150 homes.
The cover letter of the most recent edition contained comforting words for new residents.
"You have chosen a very nice place to live. The natives here have welcomed us newcomers as friends and have seemed willing to accept our opinions and thoughts as valid.
"To become effective residents of the town we must participate in local and town affairs and get acquainted with those who got here first," they wrote.
Mr. Hammond has been participating in town government since 1991, when he spoke out against a proposed townhouse development on Rising Ridge Road between the Village Gate and Twin Ridge developments.
lTC Residents of the new single-family houses didn't want townhouses and the increased traffic they would bring to the neighborhood of "country estates," he said.
Mr. Hammond began questioning town planners and other officials about their zoning plans. After the decision was made not to build the townhouses, officials encouraged him to continue his involvement in government.
"I looked at it as a matter of conscience," Mr. Hammond said.
But he said he's not a natural for the job. "I think I have a great suspicion of politicians in general."
He said he has changed political affiliation a number of times, usually choosing the party that doesn't hold the U.S. presidency. He is registered as a Republican in Frederick County.
William Wagner, a councilman since 1988, said he supported Mr. Hammond for the open council seat, in part because Mr. Hammond had attended so many town meetings.
Mr. Hammond will bring a newcomer's view to the five-member council led by R. Delaine Hobbs, who has held a seat for 28 years. Mr. Hammond said he will challenge his colleagues on issues, but will stand behind decisions made by the majority.
His military and business experience tells him that the town government needs more of a formal organization with a chain of command and a system of accountability, he said. The 100-year-old town that straddles Carroll and Frederick counties has been run like a family, Mr. Hammond said.
"That's not a bad way to run a small town, but not a small city," he said. "My strength is in administration."
Mount Airy has about 4,700 residents, 15 employees and an annual operating budget of about $2.3 million.
The practice of assigning a council member to oversee each department will have to change as the town continues to grow, he said. When a council member leaves, there's a gap in leadership.
A city manager could provide expertise on roads, sewers, water, garbage collection and parks and recreation, he said. The mayor and council should not be expected to have that technical knowledge, he said.
Mr. Hammond said he is not advocating that the town hire a manager now, but said it probably will have to in the future.
He said he will spend the next few months immersed in town business. He has been assigned the supervision of streets and roads.
"I want to become more effective than most, more quickly than most," he said.