Soon after taking office, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III began purging top administrators from county government. Worried that holdovers from Jack Johnson’s administration might be caught in the unfolding “pay-to-play” corruption probe, Baker agonized over who should stay and who should go.
But one name kept popping up as Baker (D) weighed his options three years ago. “Keep Haitham,” he heard repeatedly.
Haitham (pronounced Hi-them) is Syrian-born Haitham Hijazi, a 54-year-old civil engineer and one of only two department heads Baker retained. In July, Hijazi, who spent a decade as head of the county’s $22 million public works and transportation department, took charge of a new Department of Permitting, Inspections and Enforcement that Baker has said is vital to his efforts to change the perception of Prince George’s as corrupt,unwelcoming to business and overly bureaucratic.
Baker said he needed to fix the permitting and inspections system — which had been criticized for being lax on regulation, slow to respond to neighborhood blight and inefficient in issuing permits — or face the possibility that the county might never emerge from its troubled past or attract high-end development that has bypassed it.
In 2010, investigators arrested Baker’s predecessor Johnson (D) and his wife, then-County Council member Leslie Johnson (D-Mitchellville) after Johnson took $15,000 in cash from a developer and was then overheard on a wiretap discussing plans for his wife to stuff $79,600 into her bra. Johnson, who admitted in federal court that he took more than $400,000 in bribes, is serving a seven-year prison term for shaking down developers almost from the day he took office in 2002. Leslie Johnson served a one-year term.
Businesses and residents for years also have complained that the county’s permitting system is convoluted and difficult for even experts to navigate. As the stock of foreclosed properties swelled, the government struggled to ensure that the grass was cut and trash picked up. For many residents and businesses, it was hardly a shock that the Johnson scandal showed that bribery could be an efficient way to get things done.
“This is like the schools,” Baker said, referring to his recent effort to gain more control of the public school system. “It’s a big risk. But we have to do it.”
As the county seeks major investors for its 15 underutilized Metro stations, tries to lure federal agencies such as the FBI and attract new residents, it can ill afford an unwieldy bureaucracy that is slow to act or indifferent to problems in neighborhoods, Baker said.
“Prince George’s needs to be a place where businesses and residents want to stay and where new ones want to come,” he said.
Otherwise, “they will walk away.”
Kenneth Dunn, a vice president of Soltesz, an engineering firm with many projects in Prince George’s, said that the new, $24 million agency is a much-needed attempt to fix long-standing problems.
“Ultimately, Prince George’s County needed to put itself in position to compete with adjacent and surrounding jurisdictions to attract new business and more-upscale development,” he said.
To do that, he said, the system for development approval and cleaning up blight needed to be easier to navigate. “The jury is still out,” Dunn said. “But I am optimistic.”
Hijazi, who is paid $180,000 annually, said his goal is to create a “one-stop shop that will reform the process quite a bit.”
Since the new agency opened July 1, Hijazi has been managing a staff of nearly 200 employees who must expedite permits while ensuring that applications are scrutinized; clean up the county’s long list of housing violations; ensure that new buildings are safely constructed; and pressure property owners, including banks, who aren’t properly maintaining foreclosed properties.
But he cautioned not to expect miracles overnight because money to pay for the overhaul is limited in the county, where raising real estate taxes is limited by a tax cap.
“We had to create a new department from scratch,” Hijazi said. “That is not easy when you have a downturn in the economy.”
Hijazi’s two-decade rise in county government, friends and colleagues say, stems from his workaholic tendencies, but also from his friendly manner and comfort with disparate cultures.
An observant Muslim, Hijazi prays several times a day in his office, shutting out the modern world to recite from the Koran. A structural engineer and government manager, he speaks fluently about mathematical equations, road widening and how best to inspire employees. A Syrian immigrant and naturalized citizen in a majority African American county, Hijazi has showed uncommon skill at befriending county residents, politicians and business leaders from diverse political and ethic groups.
Growing up as the oldest of 13 children in Syria and later Saudi Arabia, Hijazi learned early how to manage. At age 22, after graduating from Damascus University, his eldest uncle put him in charge of two younger cousins who were attending college in Maryland while Hijazi received a master’s in engineering from George Washington University.
Hijazi went on to receive a doctorate in engineering from the University of Maryland and joined a development consulting firm in Adelphi. He soon made his way to the county’s public works department where he rose through the ranks and was tapped by Johnson to run the agency.
Now he faces a huge challenge.
“He could have stayed at public works,” Baker said. “And he knows if this doesn’t work out he might lose his job.”
Since the new agency opened in modernized offices in Largo, Hijazi has been immersing himself in the details, trying to ensure that staff members know how to use the new computerized intake system and watching to see if they hit newly imposed deadlines.
Hijazi is also trying to do more to update computer systems and expects to acquire handheld computers for inspectors in the field. He also is pursuing software that will enable multiple reviewers to examine permit applications at the same time, which should speed reviews that previously took months, he said.
So far, there have been few reported problems and many kudos from businesses and community members, with whom Hijazi meets regularly.
Baker thinks Hijazi has gotten off to a good start.
“Many people in county government find an excuse to stop something from happening,” said former County Council chairman Tom Dernoga (D-Laurel). “He doesn’t use red tape as an excuse to do nothing but tries to find a way to make it work. That’s the engineer in him.”
As the permitting process undergoes change, Hijazi also is trying to improve community inspections. He hopes to persuade the County Council to set up a new administrative review to bypass the courts and make it easier to impose penalties and eliminate blight.
Hijazi expects soon to create a database to more closely track problem properties. While the county has an inventory of 1,860 foreclosed properties, there is no single place to check their condition or legal status, or the county’s response.
“We need to become more efficient and productive,” Hijazi said.
Soltesz’s Dunn, who is a vice president of the Maryland-
National Capital Building Industry Association, said the introduction of firm deadlines for the county to respond to applications has been a big plus. He also said the new system is far more explicit about what documents the applicant must provide, something that was missing in the past.
“It is more of a team effort,” he said. “It’s refreshing.”
But in Landover’s Columbia Park neighborhood, there is concern that bureaucratic reshuffling won’t fix many of the community’s problems, such as the vacant house that has plagued the community for more than two decades, and where repeated complaints by residents have failed to get much attention.
“It has been a big problem for years,” said civic association president Mary Brigham, who hopes Hijazi finally will be able to level the house.
So does Hijazi. But the bulldozer might not arrive for a while. The legal details have taken more time than he would like.
“That is going to be a challenge, and we need to work on it,” he said.