For years, the audience at a typical meeting of Frederick's mayor and Board of Aldermen consisted of a handful of lawyers, a developer or two and maybe a couple of reporters. And that was the problem.
Who was missing?
Ordinary residents. Not many of them seemed engaged in city affairs, and few regularly showed up to watch Frederick's lawmakers and policy formulators at work.
So this month, to spur more citizen involvement in municipal issues, the Neighborhood Advisory Council program is getting underway, with the goal of bringing City Hall into the community and vice versa. It is a first in Maryland, and only a few cities in the country -- including Washington -- have tried the idea.
The program divides Frederick into 12 districts -- roughly aligned with voting districts and census tracts -- and establishes councils of volunteers in each area. They act as liaisons between their neighborhoods and city officials on a wide range of issues.
What makes the program different from the myriad citizen councils, advisory boards and commissions in Frederick and other cities is that the panels are permanent bodies that will make regular reports to the Board of Aldermen. Although the five- to seven-member councils, all city-appointed, have no legislative or executive powers, they may get small budgets for neighborhood projects. Each member will serve a two-year term.
The initiative reflects the broad and sometimes controversial ambitions of the woman who put the idea into action, Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty (D). And it speaks to the growth of Frederick, a city of 52,000 that for decades has aggressively expanded into the surrounding countryside.
After a water-supply crisis that halted most new development in Frederick for more than a year, the city appears likely to stop expansion. Its growth is instead expected to concentrate in the remaining undeveloped patches of land within city limits, making Frederick a denser environment with more urban concerns. And as newer, suburban-style subdivisions on the city's fringe begin to mature, taking on distinct neighborhood identities, they will expect a bigger voice in city affairs, Dougherty said.
"Developers always have the ability to lobby city government," she said. "But we're really supposed to be doing the work of neighborhoods, first and foremost."
The question is whether the city can muster enough interest in the fledgling councils to make them a real force, rather than a public relations campaign.
"I hope it's a real attempt to get that open line of communication that [Dougherty] has been talking about," said Eric Krasner, a charter member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council in North Crossing. "But at this point, it's too early to tell."
With civic involvement on a well-documented downward slide, success by the councils could prompt emulation elsewhere in Maryland and beyond. But failure would be another knock against Dougherty, who took office last January on a pledge to make Frederick "a model city" but has since drawn criticism for controversies that have flared under her watch.
Dougherty, who grew up in Washington and moved to Frederick in 1987, said she based the idea on the District's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, a program instituted years before home rule took effect in 1974. Members of the ANCs are elected, and each commission represents about 2,000 residents. There are 37 commissions, each with five to seven members.
"Some people look at it as anachronistic," said Beverly R. Wheeler, executive director of Neighborhood Action, a program in the office of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that is designed to improve conditions in city neighborhoods. "But I think they're great. Their decisions about what goes on command great weight -- though there's always some fight about what 'great weight' means."
Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) launched a similar program in 2001, under his Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods. Unlike the programs in the District and in Frederick, Baltimore's neighborhood representatives are city employees who oversee large swaths of the city, rather than discrete neighborhoods.
Wilmington, Del., instituted neighborhood councils in 1981. Simi Valley, Calif., also has a similar program.
In Maryland, the program "appears to be unique," said James P. Peck, director of research for the Maryland Municipal League, an association of 157 municipal governments.
The Frederick councils are the centerpiece of Dougherty's campaign promise to demystify local government and to open communication between City Hall and neighborhoods. She inherited a government chronically beset by controversy. First, there were allegations that the city's former police chief had ordered officers to spy on Frederick County's NAACP chief. Then came the "black book scandal," involving allegations that city officials covered up their use of a prostitution service.
In her inaugural speech last January, Dougherty said Frederick "will be a model for the nation when we restore our trust in local government, when our actions as government officials are performed in the public interest."
But the mayor soon faced her own controversies. A Democrat in a mostly conservative area and widely viewed as an outsider, Dougherty has been criticized as abrasive and domineering. Opponents accuse her of the same type of backroom deals for which she chastised her predecessor, James S. Grimes (R). Under Dougherty, the Board of Aldermen, with three Democrats and two Republicans, is more divided on issues than it has been in years, with ego clashes frequently on display.
But the idea for the Neighborhood Advisory Councils enjoys a surprising amount of bipartisan support, with even Dougherty's most vocal critics applauding the idea.
"Politics is local, and service is local, and who better to tell you what needs to be done than the citizen in the neighborhood?" said Alderman Dave Lenhart (R), a frequent critic of Dougherty's.
At a meeting Thursday, the board and mayor got their first sense of what involvement by the Neighborhood Advisory Councils can be like. After several heated exchanges between Dougherty and Alderman William Hall (D), advisory council member Krasner stood at the lectern and called the mayor and board "a bunch of clowns."
Dougherty wanted citizen input, and now she has it.
"You're both an embarrassment," Krasner told the mayor and Hall. "You need to raise the level and act professionally or find something else to do. You guys have to get together. This is not a kindergarten."