Annapolis Mayor Fights For Second Term

Sep 4, 2013

Annapolis mayor Josh Cohen.
Credit chesbayprogram via flickr

Annapolis Mayor Josh Cohen took over a city four years ago that was living beyond its means yet still not making the most of its assets.

Despite what he calls a successful rescue, Cohen’s re-election bid has drawn challengers from both parties who say the Democrat’s efforts have fallen far short.

Highlighting the list of complaints about Cohen’s tenure is that it has taken him almost his entire term to re-open Market House, an Annapolis waterfront tradition for two centuries that has been mostly closed since Tropical Storm Isabel flooded the Capital City in 2003. 

As a sort of penance for 10 years of bad decisions about the landmark facility--to which he admits he contributed--Cohen will highlight a re-opening ceremony this weekend with a “walk off the plank” into the Annapolis harbor.  “It’s been a series of errors, of costly errors,” Cohen said, acknowledging extra costs may run as high as $5 million. Yet, he was hopeful that his harbor dip will blunt the criticism.

But the Market House fiasco is not only a political problem in its own right. It has become emblematic of a governing style that critics say is neither open, nor inclusive and seems to shut citizens out of policy-making until the end of the process.

Mike Pantelides, a soft-ware salesman and one of four candidates challenging Cohen’s re-election bid, said Market House takes up at least half the conversation during his contacts with voters.

“That’s probably the number one issue people bring up when I knock on their doors,” said Pantelides, who is running in a three-way Republican primary.  “And it’s really people’s frustration with the way things are run. It’s kind of the ultimate example of government inefficiencies.”

Cohen says the major achievement of his first term in office was bringing balance to a budget his predecessor, Ellen Moyer, left deeply in the red.  “We averted bankruptcy. We were heading towards not having the cash to make our payroll,” he said. “Even from when I first walked in the door almost four years ago, I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions. And some decisions have been unpopular.”

There were layoffs, service cuts, higher taxes and higher fees, none of which is endearing to voters. But Cohen’s challengers have mostly focused on development proposals at the City Dock, and in a rare patch of forest, that have stirred emotional opposition.

“This is not the way that we need to run our city,” said Bevin Buchheister, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, who is running against Cohen in the September 17 Democratic primary.  “We’re a city, but we’re really a small town.  Everybody knows everybody. It’s just very divisive for our community.”

Much of the controversy has been sparked over Cohen’s effort to upgrade the down-at-the-heels City Dock area. A committee that met for two years produced a plan with high rise buildings that would block the harbor view and eliminate parking spaces. Cohen himself opposes some aspects of the proposal, but let it go forward for debate.

Republican Bob O’Shea, a sales consultant who deals with medical and defense equipment manufacturers, said that was a critical mistake.

“Something you never put into a proposal are things that you know are non-starters, said O’Shea. “Putting buildings that are as large or larger than the Marriot are non-starters. They’re not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, on the south of edge of town, Cohen has encouraged a massive proposal to develop 64 acres of mostly mature trees into a retirement community that would also include a shopping center, 80-room Inn, a 300-seat cultural arts center and 128 townhouses.

Nearby residents are fighting the plan based on traffic fears as well as environmental concerns.

Buchheister predicted the city could face lawsuits on both the Crystal Spring and City Dock proposals for failing to manage developers’ expectations.

Yet, Cohen takes credit for repeatedly resisting the most politically expedient path.  “The task of a mayor is to exercise leadership not just to say what people want to hear,” he said.  And, maybe walking the plank over Market House will save him from a dunking at the polls.