John Wesley White, Prince George's County's top administrator, poked his head out of his office after a full morning of meetings last week, thoughts of lunch and afternoon commitments on his mind. His secretary handed him a pile of phone messages along with the news he was expected to appear in two hours at a reception that had been scheduled only that morning.
"I'm not going. It's not fair. They shouldn't do that," he said of the last-minute invitation. He paused for a moment, shrugged and then grinned. "Well, forget fair. It's not right. But I'll go."
It was a hectic week for White, the county's new chief administrative officer, the highest nonelected post in county government. With County Executive Parris Glendening on a 10-day trip to Europe, White--for the first time--was left in charge of Glendening's commitments, details of several issues, as well as day-to-day administration.
By midweek, his desk on the northeast side of the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro was strewn with pink phone messages, his in-box stuffed with thick piles of memoranda. But White, 42, a professional administrator, seemed untroubled by the added responsibilities.
"This is a guy that came in here in December, but he's working on all eight cylinders right now," said county labor negotiator Frank Stegman, another Glendening appointee.
Glendening appointed White in January to succeed Kenneth Duncan, 44, a Democrat who served under the tempestuous administration of Republican Lawrence J. Hogan. Duncan, often labeled a "workaholic," was considered a steady hand in an administration sometimes regarded as mercurial and combative, and he maintained good relationships with county employes, many of whom otherwise considered the administration their enemy.
After 11 years in county service, Duncan, who said he wanted to go into the private sector, left with many good friends in government, many of whom privately hoped he would be kept on.
In the six months that White has had the $61,500-a-year job, he has impressed department heads and employes with managerial skill, an even-tempered authority, as well as a large dose of personal charm. Other Glendening staff members say he listens well, gives honest answers, grasps issues quickly and moves to resolve problems fast. They say he avoids campaign politics, and when an aide penned a meeting of Glendening's political advisers on his calendar, White scratched it out, letting it be known it was not to happen again.
"Of course, Ken is a good friend of mine; I've known him for years," Police Chief John McHale said. "But White seems to have a very practical approach; he seems to look at both sides of everything. I'm impressed with his credentials and I like his approach."
"We are very much in sympathy with one another in what we think government ought to be and what society ought to be," Glendening said.
White is the linchpin in what Glendening says he wants to be his style of government--a decentralized approach, with department heads assuming a maximum of authority and responsibility.
"Professionalism," is the other administration buzzword, and Glendening has repeatedly said he would like to become the first county executive to succeed himself by providing citizens with a government they regard as efficient and caring.
With a master's degree in public administration and a wide range of professional experiences ranging from budget analysis to environmental health services and unemployment compensation planning, White is, Glendening says, the person to help pull that off.
"It's what's important to me," White said. "Trying to deliver services is what I consider important in my life. While I'm not denying the worth of what other people do, those things have never been important to me. This is what I've always wanted to do."
The chief administrative officer's job is to carry out the policy decisions of the executive. So far, according to Glendening and staff members, White has coordinated the administration's reorganization of the economic development program and much of the work related to the transfer of the county's hospital system to a private, nonprofit corporation.
He has been involved with the county's troubled corrections' department, which has been the subject of heavy criticism during all of his short tenure. The county is under a court order to build a new jail to relieve overcrowding at the county's present, poorly designed Detention Center and must hire a new director for that department to replace the previous director, who resigned under fire last winter. In response to a public outcry, the county also is developing a proposal for a jail to hold drunken drivers.
Despite the pressure of a court order and intense public interest, White has refused to approve schematic drawings for the new jail until officials decide what to do with the old one and how both facilities would be operated.
"We were moving very fast, but we didn't know where we were going," White said. "A facility is only a house for a program. It makes no sense to build a facility until you know what kind of program there's going to be."
Similarly, in a meeting last week with a representative of the sheriff's department--the chief of which would like to run the new jail for drunken drivers--the two hammered away at details. Would it have to be self-supporting, as the sheriff suggested? "I think we ought to be willing to pay for a program if it's worthwhile,"White said.
How long would the program run, who would enter it, what type of counseling would be offered? White told the representative, politely but firmly, that the concept proposed by the sheriff was one view and others were needed.
In a dispute earlier in the year over the handling of the corrections chief, White advocated what other staff members viewed as the most humane course.
Some staff members wanted to fire corrections head Arnett Gaston outright after criticism of his management of the jail surfaced. But White insisted that he and Glendening discuss the problems with Gaston and allow him to decide. White maintains that Gaston's leaving was a mutual decision.
During one busy afternoon, White met with an architect who has done work for the county, consulted with his deputy John Davey and other staff members and rushed home to University Park to spend time with his 8-year-old son John David. He has a daughter in college and has been married to his wife Frances for 21 years.
White, a Florida native, has worked as budget director of Miami and has held managerial positions in Florida's human sevices department.
Eight years ago, he was fired as director of a department that administered unemployment programs and protection for migrant workers. A Miami News editorial maintained he was fired because he was "a tough, innovative administrator . . . who was too energetic in the performance of his job."
Before coming to Prince George's, he was director of Human Services Planning in Atlanta, administering $3 million in grants annually.