Frederick residents are nearly evenly split over whether Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty has done a good job in her first year in office, according to a poll released last week, with only a slim majority saying they approve of her actions.
The poll, the first of its kind in Frederick, also notes that nearly 60 percent of Frederick residents believe the city "is headed in the right direction," and that Dougherty has 95 percent name recognition -- uncommonly high for a local elected official.
Conducted Feb. 6-9 by the Bethesda polling firm Potomac Inc., the opinion sample found that Dougherty, a Democrat and the city's first woman mayor, has a 43 percent approval rating. Forty-one percent of poll respondents said they disapprove of her work. Seventeen percent said they were "not sure."
Only 30 percent said they would vote to reelect Dougherty, while 49 percent said they would vote for someone else. Twenty percent said they were "not sure," and the remaining 1 percent said they will not vote, or will not live in Frederick by the next election, in 2005.
Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc., which has conducted polls in Maryland since 1982 and regularly does statewide political opinion polls, said disapproval ratings above 40 percent are "an alarm bell" for politicians.
"When your negative job performance is equivalent to your positive, that's a concern, because when people develop negative opinions they're very hard to change," Haller said. "They can become hardened in many ways."
Hoda Zaki, chairman of the history and political science department at Hood College in Frederick, called the poll "interesting, but not conclusive."
"It's premature at this point to say she's not reelectable," Zaki said. "Clearly, there is a group [of voters] that cares about her very much, and there's a group that doesn't. She's a polarizing figure, to some degree."
The mayor's recent high-profile conflicts with the city's five-member Board of Aldermen appear to have grabbed the attention of Frederick voters. Eighty-two percent of those polled said they had heard of the disagreements, and 56 percent said the arguments "have become an embarrassment to the city of Frederick."
Pollers for Potomac Inc. questioned 459 registered voters in the City of Frederick and an additional 151 voters who live outside the city in Frederick County. For countywide questions, all of those polled were included, while for city-specific questions, only city voters were included. The poll has a margin of sampling error of 4.7 percent for the city questions and 4.1 percent for the county questions.
Personality clashes between Dougherty and Aldermen Dave Lenhart (R) and William Hall (D) have grabbed many local headlines recently. Hall has repeatedly criticized the mayor for what he views as her heavy-handed management of public meetings, while Dougherty has chastised Hall for what she says is his inattention to proper procedure.
After a particularly intense flare-up last month, the aldermen agreed to attend a mediation session moderated by a local nonprofit mediation group.
They are scheduled to begin mediation today. Although an earlier attempt to mediate failed when some aldermen said they could not fit it into their schedule, there seems to be some agreement among the aldermen and Dougherty that this attempt to meet will succeed.
The personality clashes, along with a string of news events including a local construction moratorium and the FBI's search for evidence in the anthrax investigation in Frederick, have brought much local and regional media attention, and seem to have lifted Dougherty's profile, Haller said.
Dougherty's 95 percent recognition rating represents "an extraordinarily high name recognition for a local politician, especially someone who has been in office a relatively short time," Haller added.
The poll is of particular note in Frederick because the county has not been singled out for an opinion poll by an independent firm before, according to Haller and several longtime county political observers.
Haller said the company conducted the poll because "Frederick is a hot community."
"There's been an extraordinary amount of news coverage on Frederick news events and Frederick politics," Haller said. "People around the state are focused on what's happening there."
Fifty percent of the poll's respondents said they "approve of the job the Frederick City Board of Aldermen is doing," and 20 percent said they disapprove.
But individually, none of the city's aldermen secured especially high ratings. Republican Joe Baldi, who has mostly stayed out of the fray in the disagreements between Dougherty and other members of the board, had the highest favorable rating of any alderman, at 42 percent.
Alderman Marcia Hall (no relation to William Hall), who has also generally stayed out of the disputes, had the lowest favorability rating, at 24 percent. Lenhart's favorability rating was 30 percent and William Hall's was 33 percent.
Dougherty said the results are "just a snapshot."
"This is a snapshot of one week, and it's interesting for political junkies to look at, but it really doesn't change what I do, or what I think, or who I am," she said. "I go with the theory that you do the right thing and you put yourself out there and offer that for voters come Election Day."
Lenhart, one of Dougherty's most frequent critics on the Board of Aldermen, said the poll "confirms what the average citizen, the apolitical citizen, feels about our mayor."
"Bad news travels fast," Lenhart said. "She has a huge problem, and that bothers me. The fact that the City of Frederick is getting this kind of attention, with the outcome being negative, really troubles me."