"Irish diplomacy: The ability to tell someone to go to hell so that he will look forward to the trip."

The plaque, positioned at eye level on the wall of Jennifer P. Dougherty's spacious office on the second floor of Frederick City Hall, is one of the first things a visitor is likely to see when sitting at her well-polished conference table.

The prominent placement of the item, a gift from the mayor's mother, is no accident, Dougherty says. "I speak pretty plainly. I speak carefully, but I tell people what we're doing," she said. "Open government doesn't mean that you always get your own way."

One year after sweeping into office on a promise to rid Frederick of the handshake deals and old-boy networks that defined the growing and increasingly diverse city's politics for generations, Dougherty has appeared unafraid to tell the city's establishment leaders to, in so many words, enjoy the trip.

The question, say Dougherty detractors, is whether the first nonnative of Frederick County to lead City Hall -- and the first Democrat to hold the office in a decade -- makes sufficient use of the second word inscribed on that green-and-gold plaque: diplomacy.

In a Washington exurb of 52,000 residents that not long ago was a mostly rural and tight-knit community, the old guard still wields influence -- a network of native Frederick business leaders and politicians who trade favors and seal deals with a handshake. An "outsider" can be defined as someone not born and raised within the city limits.

Dougherty's pledge to give the city "a fresh start," as her campaign signs put it, has met with resistance and accusations that she conducts the same behind-the-scenes maneuverings she promised to eliminate.

Egos have been bruised as Dougherty, 41, has retooled the administration of former mayor James S. Grimes, a Republican. Some promised appointments were not made, some longtime city staff members fired.

"The who's who of the city -- the people who think that they run this city -- probably have a very low opinion" of Dougherty, said Alderman Donna Kuzemchak Ramsburg (D), often the mayor's ally. "And yet when I speak with . . . people I know, not political people, most of them have respect for the woman because she says something and she does it."

Grimes's downfall followed the "black book" scandal -- accusations that officials covered up evidence that they had used a prostitution service. The allegations have never been backed up by hard evidence.

While campaigning, Dougherty pledged that if elected, she would release the material. But after taking office, she changed her mind, saying she had not realized that the records were legally confidential.

Not long after Dougherty's election, a new divide opened on the city's Board of Aldermen between two members who backed the previous administration -- Dave Lenhart (R) and William Hall (D) -- and Democrats Marcia A. Hall and Ramsburg, who support Dougherty. Alderman Joe Baldi, a Republican, tends to be a swing vote.

The split reflects a sex divide on the board. More than party loyalty, the division between men and women seems to frame the city's most controversial decisions.

Add the fact that Dougherty is the city's first female mayor and some say you have an even more complicated political dynamic.

"I think the gender issue is massive," Ramsburg said. "You have working for the city, and elected in the city, a number of chauvinists, and I think it works both ways. They don't trust her because she's a woman, and she doesn't trust them because they're men."

The schism, particularly between Lenhart and Dougherty, appears to have widened with time. The two routinely lash out at one another.

Lenhart says Dougherty has shut him out; Dougherty says Lenhart shut himself out.

Neither talks to the other outside public meetings.

Frederick's city charter, which gives the mayor more authority than many counterparts in Maryland, is partly to blame for the bad feelings, Lenhart said, because it creates an imbalance of power. Still, he placed most of the blame on Dougherty.

"If you had [a mayor] who liked to cooperate, who was not a control-aholic, power-mongering individual, this form of government could be a very positive experience," Lenhart said. "But that's not what we have."

Dougherty, for her part, said she "would have preferred to sit across the table from someone and chat."

"But Alderman Lenhart and Alderman [William] Hall are not here at City Hall very often, and . . . it's hard for me to pop in their offices and sit down and just say hi, and it seems virtually impossible for them to say hello to me," she said.

This vivid public display of rancor is new in Frederick politics, observers say..

Whether this is a good thing depends on whom you ask: Dougherty partisans say it is democracy in action, proof that decision-making at her City Hall is transparent.

"The lack of public conflict in the last administration left some things that had to be cleaned up by the present administration, and the cleanup is being done in public," said Paul P. Gordon, a Republican mayor of Frederick in the early 1990s. "That's democracy. When the Continental Congress met, they were at each other's throats."

Opponents say the rancor is grandstanding, initiated by a mayor bent on maintaining control.

The Dougherty-Lenhart divide yawned particularly wide over the city's decision to sell a small plot of land that contains a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments. During the summer, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, alleging that the monument violated the First Amendment prohibition of state-sponsored religion.

On Nov. 20, Dougherty and the aldermen agreed to sell the property. The ACLU said it will drop its lawsuit if the sale is completed.

But the decision was made in a closed meeting, and some criticize Dougherty for the very secretiveness she promised to stop.

"The citizens of Frederick were never given the opportunity to participate in a public discussion that the administration promised," Lenhart said. "That promise was broken. I have a real problem with that."

Under Maryland's open-meetings laws, elected officials may meet in private to discuss pending lawsuits, and nobody suggests that Dougherty violated any laws. But Dougherty acknowledged that the meeting could have been public.

However, she said, "very rarely do you have a public meeting on the settlement of a lawsuit. Lawsuits are not handled by public opinion. Lawsuits are handled by analysis of the law."

Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty talks in her office under the sign her mother gave her. "I speak pretty plainly," Dougherty said.