Another Md. city, another Sheila

The Baltimore Sun

Two cities in the same state. Each has a woman as mayor. Both women are African-American. And both have the first name of Sheila.

Well, that's how it was for three weeks, anyway.

Sheila Dixon became the first female mayor of Baltimore this year. Dixon ascended to the post of mayor (or descended, depending on how you feel about the mayor's office in Baltimore) when former Mayor Martin O' Malley left for the governor's mansion.

From July 26 through Aug. 15, Sheila M. Finlayson was the acting mayor of Annapolis, standing in for incumbent Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, who was in Europe visiting the sister cities of our state capital.

Finlayson's regular job is alderwoman for the 4th Ward in Annapolis, a post she's held since a special election was held in January. Two seats on the Annapolis city council were open after one alderman won a seat on the Anne Arundel County Council and another left to take a county job.

"Elected and community leaders asked me to run for the council seat," Finlayson said this week as we sat in the Annapolis council chambers.

The first thing that let me know I wasn't in Baltimore anymore was the absence of security guards and metal detectors at Annapolis' small City Hall on Duke of Gloucester Street. The second thing that let me know I wasn't in Baltimore was learning that Finlayson doesn't have an office in Annapolis' City Hall. None of the aldermen and alderwoman do.

"We don't have an office," Finlayson said. "We don't have support staff. We don't have business cards or stationery, either."

Boy, talk about small government!

It's the lack of business cards and stationery that rankles Finlayson the most.

"We're professionals," she said, "We should be accorded the rights and responsibilities of professionals. I tried to address the business card and stationery issue in the budget."

That assessment comes from a woman who's spent much of her adult life as a professional -- in education. For 25 years, Finlayson taught English at South River High School just down Route 2 from Annapolis. More recently, she taught at North County High School and was president of the teachers union in Anne Arundel County.

Finlayson said her experience as a labor union president helped her when she became acting mayor and had to meet with what she called "contentious groups."

"I had to deal with a superintendent who was anti-union," Finlayson said of her teachers union experience. "I got my sea legs from dealing with contentious issues."

No wonder Finlayson agreed to serve when Moyer's secretary called and asked if she'd like to be acting mayor during Moyer's absence.

"It was good," Finlayson said of her experience as acting mayor. "There was some pomp and circumstance. Some photo ops. Everyone in the city was extremely responsive. Very helpful."

While acting mayor, Finlayson helped a hotel that had recently opened get an occupancy permit. She met with community groups concerned about speeding, noise and loitering. She met with the police chief and discussed areas of Annapolis where crime was on the rise. She helped the Annapolis Fire Department launch its annual campaign to raise money to fight muscular dystrophy.

Did any of this stoke the embers of political ambition in Finlayson? Is a run for mayor in her political future? Finlayson thought for a moment after I asked her the question.

"Maybe," she answered. "I'm not going to say no. But right now my focus is on being a very good alderwoman."

For Finlayson, being a good alderwoman means she'll continue her forays through her district -- she calls them "Walk The Ward with the Alderwoman" -- in which she visits different 4th Ward neighborhoods.

Those walks are usually on Saturdays, but Finlayson goes on other days if community leaders tell her that's when they want her.

Last Saturday, Finlayson was in the Kingsport neighborhood to look at lighting and other problems. Finlayson jotted down notes, as she does in all her walks. When she's done, she said, "I come back and have a sit-down with the folks that can help us make a difference."

Finlayson said she represents "a ward that's had probably five shootings in the last seven months: two homicides, three drive-bys, all drug-related." Finlayson held a meeting in the community where the second shooting happened about a month after she was elected.

"I've asked the community to step up and call the police more frequently and to get involved in community watch programs, and they've done it," Finlayson said.

That dedication to her constituents is homegrown. Finlayson is a lifelong resident of Annapolis. She grew up in Eastport and graduated from Annapolis High School in 1970 and then Morgan State in 1974. She left Annapolis and Maryland briefly to earn a master's degree in cultural diversity from the University of Wisconsin in 1996.

"I like the fact that I'm a lifelong resident of Annapolis," said the woman who might one day be the city's full-time mayor. "I'm a big cheerleader for Annapolis. Always have been."

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