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For Baltimore’s first-ever city administrator Chris Shorter, it’s ‘almost like coming home’

Chris Shorter’s day begins just a few steps from his Reservoir Hill home, across a cafe table from B. Cole.

Like Shorter, Cole is a transplant. She’s an Oakland, California, native who landed in Baltimore in 2016 with plans to reinvigorate Black homeownership in neglected city neighborhoods. Cole bought the Dovecote Café, where the pair sit, sight unseen.

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Shorter is newer still. Raised in Detroit, he arrived in January by way of Austin, Texas. Before that, he spent about a decade in Washington, D.C.

The pair have never met, but they speak with passion for Baltimore. Cole regales Shorter with the history of the neighborhood where both have chosen to lay their heads. Shorter listens intently, hands folded in the lap of his pressed trousers.

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Moving to Baltimore was “almost like coming home,” Shorter tells Cole, offering a bit of his own back story. Like Detroit, Baltimore is “fueled with Black culture.”

Chris Shorter, Baltimore's new city administrator, before taking a tour July 9, 2021, of the Old Goucher neighborhood.
Chris Shorter, Baltimore's new city administrator, before taking a tour July 9, 2021, of the Old Goucher neighborhood. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

“I grew up in an area that didn’t have much in the way of investment,” he says. “When I was a kid, I always felt like my neighborhood is like this, but when I go to play football, these other neighborhoods — they have tree-lined sidewalks and resources and schools and nice facilities.”

“I knew growing up I wanted cities to be better for us. I’ve been able to stick with that public service tent throughout my career.”

Shorter, 42, is Baltimore’s first city administrator, a position created via a charter amendment in 2020 and championed by then-City Council president and now-Mayor Brandon Scott. Scott argued then and now that having a politically neutral executive to oversee municipal services, supervise agencies, help prepare the budget and advise on policy would make city operations more efficient and effective.

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Now, Shorter is here to make Scott’s vision a reality.

On a recent day, as a Baltimore Sun reporter observed Shorter, the mayor likened the city to a business with a multibillion-dollar budget. The mayor is the chief executive officer and lays out his vision, he said. Shorter is the chief operating officer responsible for carrying that vision out, Scott said.

“For Baltimore to serve its residents and businesses at the highest, most efficient and effective level, the structure has to be modern, it has to be filled with the best quality people and it has to work for us,” Scott said. The mayor said in a statement that Shorter is expected to help restore trust in City Hall and “give Baltimoreans a new experience,” and would be evaluated based on that goal.

With a salary of $250,000, Shorter is among the highest-paid city officials and makes more than the mayor, who is paid $194,189 a year. The Democratic mayor has said a competitive salary was necessary to attract the right candidate for city administrator.

Shorter’s job is not one that’s invisible to the public, but much of his work happens behind the scenes.

After his coffee klatsch with Cole, Shorter zipped southward to City Hall for a meeting of his executive team. The weekly sessions are independent of mayoral cabinet meetings, and the city’s 11-member executive team, some of who report to Shorter, attends. Officials ticked off updates on the various issues each was handling: union arbitration, the nascent results of a 911 diversion program, plans to return some of the city’s workforce to City Hall post-pandemic.

The briefing was as much for the others in the room as it was for Shorter. Staff in attendance talked about the potential for their work to touch upon that of other departments. Leaders chimed in on topics outside their purview. Shorter was soft-spoken but authoritative.

“Great strategy,” he offered. “Completely agree with that.”

Discussion eventually landed on employee evaluations, a process Shorter wants to restart for many of Baltimore’s more than 14,000 workers. Currently, only one of the bargaining units representing city employees requires such evaluations. And in that unit of 1,200 people, only 60% are regularly evaluated.

Contracts with the other unions, which include some of the city’s largest, don’t require evaluations, so it’s “not clear” how many of those employees are being evaluated, Shorter told The Sun.

From left, Baltimore City Administrator Chris Shorter walks with Kelly Cross, president of Old Goucher Community Association, on July 9, 2021.
From left, Baltimore City Administrator Chris Shorter walks with Kelly Cross, president of Old Goucher Community Association, on July 9, 2021. (Kim Hairston/The Baltimore Sun)

Budget Director Bob Cenname explained that the city previously set aside money to reward employees who scored a 5 on a 1-to-5 rubric. The practice was put on hold with employment freezes during the pandemic, he said.

“I like the idea that it’s not attached to money right now,” Shorter said. “We need to get in the habit of doing them again.”

Chief of Staff Michael Huber said evaluations have been ”extremely burdensome” in the past and caused “resentment” even when they’re associated with a financial incentive. Deputy City Administrator Daniel Ramos noted that the employee evaluation process is also “completely separate” from the promotion process.

Shorter reminded the group that the city has set a goal of evaluating only 50% of its employees this year. But leaders should be encouraging managers to look at previous evaluations and meet to check in on the process at the half-year mark.

“This is a culture shift and it starts with us,” Shorter said.

A primary function of Shorter’s job is managing city staff, and that’s a task he said he’s approached with morale in mind. In his first days on the job, Shorter sent a message to the city workforce telling them that he considers his role a “privilege” that “comes with a duty to serve you (our workforce) and this city with the highest level of accountability, trust and respect.”

Together, Scott and Shorter have tried to be more visible to the city’s employees. Both regularly tour city work sites and speak directly to staff. During the winter snow season, Scott surprised snowplow drivers by thanking them via a radio call during a shift change.

“The workforce can tell if it really is genuine,” Shorter said.

But managing a workforce also means making tough decisions that will inevitably ruffle feathers. The evaluation process Shorter is implementing is likely to be one of those calls.

“Any organization that is moving from good to great or OK to good requires every single employee to understand their role,” Shorter explained. “It’s feedback on their performance. It’s the opportunity to develop and receive training. … Every employee needs to be tuned in and tied into this government. Their role needs to be clearly laid out.”

The city will do its best to provide every resource to help employees be successful, Shorter said, but some employees will inevitably seek other jobs, he said.

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“I can’t apologize for what is about to happen, in terms of some employees not feeling welcome in our government, if being challenged to do better means they do not fit in anymore,” he said.

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Shorter believes institutional change is the only means to achieving the mayor’s goals, which he acknowledged are “lofty.” Shorter’s tasks include addressing some of the city’s most systemic problems, such as violent crime and Baltimore’s persistently poor water billing system. He’s also been asked to oversee the response to crisis situations such as the city’s coronavirus pandemic strategy, restarting recycling and the problem-plagued transition to the Workday payroll system that left employees without complete paychecks for months.

Shorter’s first move to address the systemic issues has been to assemble a team. Shortly after arriving, Shorter, who has a background in public works from his time in the District of Columbia government, helped oversee the hiring process for Jason W. Mitchell, Baltimore’s new director of public works. The department had been without permanent leadership since early 2019, when director Rudy Chow retired.

“Investments have been made. The infrastructure is present. We need to make sure we are providing the kind of customer service that is appropriate,” Shorter said, praising Mitchell. “I’m relatively confident we will be in a place where we are able to bring more confidence and transparency to the water billing system.”

Shorter’s approach, like Scott’s, also relies on data. The pair both frequently cite numbers as they speak and eagerly watched together earlier this year as the city unveiled an Open Checkbook tool that provides city data to the public. Meetings to discuss statistics on crime and quality of life issues like trash are held regularly, and this month, Baltimore debuted a new Open Budget tool that allows residents to better explore city spending.

That focus on data has been particularly important as Baltimore officials grapple with a violent summer. Knowing exactly where the city stands is critical, Shorter said.

“In these sessions, we’re also able to talk about the role that other government organizations could and should be playing,” Shorter added. “We’re able to talk about cleanliness and other quality-of-life issues in the city that play a role in violence and play a role in the pride that communities have. All of that matters, as well, in terms of turning the corner.”

Shorter acknowledged he favors the internal work over the external, which he views as a complement to Scott’s visible persona.

“The mayor is the champion. He is the public face of our government,” Shorter said. “I think it really helps that I lean internal because there are so many opportunities for improvement.”

Still, Shorter spent hours in the community during The Sun’s visit. His last stop was a tour of several homeless shelters housed in local hotels during the coronavirus pandemic. The shelters, which have allowed residents to socially distance better than more communal housing options, are funded with Federal Emergency Management Agency money. The reimbursement rate is set to decrease this fall, however, so Baltimore will have to find other ways to cover costs or stop using the hotels.

Amid the hum of evening rush hour traffic, Shorter huddled with Irene Agustin, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Homeless Services, whom he helped to recruit to Baltimore from San Francisco.

Agustin explained that the setup at the hotel was more challenging than many, but the facility also presented an opportunity. Other cities have used federal funds to transform hotels into apartments for permanent supported housing, she said.

“It feels like home,” Shorter responded softly.

“Right,” Agustin replied.

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