Anthony Batts’ departure reminds us that City Hall appears to have had a revolving door installed around 2011; new hires at city agencies typically last around two years and are gone before we learn their names.
Creating this level of constant turnover isn’t easy. Here’s how Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake does it:
1. Friends first. Loyalty is paramount in your inner circle, so childhood friends are best. No one wants constant questioning.
2. Flunkies second. You want people you can control. In 2012, Rawlings-Blake appointed Florida-based Gans & Gans Associates (at the recommendation of Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano) to scour the country to find B players—for when her own network proved insufficient.
Just to name a few of many failed hires: Harry Black (Finance; Richmond, Virginia), Anthony Batts (Baltimore Police; Oakland, California), Brenda McKenzie (Baltimore Development Corporation; Boston), Rico Singleton (Mayor’s Office of Information Technology; Albany, New York), Oxiris Barbot (Health; New York City) were all brought to Baltimore with great fanfare.
And without any local connections or power base of their own—and lackluster, controversial management histories—they were perfect puppets. Compliant and unable to build their own local agenda, they each were asked to leave when their position ultimately became untenable.
3. Take credit; assign blame. If something somehow goes well, naturally you should take credit for it. But when anything goes wrong at a city department, your disposable hires (who, let’s face it, owe you alone for hiring them) are ideal for taking the fall. Just fire them, and the blame goes with them. And because they are from out of town, no one will ever fight you. It’s as easy as “buh-bye.”
Now, you could go the other way: develop the best local talent; bring in select A players from elsewhere with the intention of incorporating new, original thinking into the city; seek authentic engagement between your team and citizens that would help everyone succeed. They might even get something useful done. And citizens might actually start to care about those people. Baltimore might actually grow and prosper.
But that’s all so messy—and risky. You don’t want one of these people to get a following of their own; and worse, what if they started to develop an agenda different from yours? Then what? You might not even be able to fire them!
Now, back in reality: You may be tempted to analyze Batts’ performance—what he did or didn’t do. Know this: It doesn’t matter. He was there to take the mayor’s orders. When he stopped doing that and started to make the mayor look bad, it was time for him to go. He was disposable from the day he was hired.
In folklore, a sin-eater is someone who absorbs blame and, in so doing, absolves everyone else. Used sparingly and justly, this can be a convincing and cathartic device.
But when turnover reaches comic levels—and everyone but the mayor is somehow to blame—maybe it’s time to question the person doing the hiring.