Barrie Tilghman: Standing up and speaking for change

Barrie Tilghman: "My parents always taught me that you are either part of the problem or the solution. Once you know there is a problem, you are part of that problem unless you stand up and speak for change."

Barrie Tilghman: “My parents always taught me that you are either part of the problem or the solution. Once you know there is a problem, you are part of that problem unless you stand up and speak for change.”

For 11 years, Salisbury’s mayor was a figure of polarization and admiration. Even people who didn’t like Barrie Parsons Tilghman has to respect her fighter’s instincts; those who loved her adored the walls she removed on her way to changing Salisbury’s government.

If someone were to write a book about her tenure, it would be rejected as wild fiction. She entered office an outsider, the candidate whom the establishment prayed would not win. Her first days were spent confronting goings-on within the city police department: Tensions were overflowing and — then — the police chief at the center of the controversy was killed in plane crash.

Her first council was openly hostile; tempers flared in public meetings and a referendum was launched to have her role minimized in a city manager form of government. The referendum failed, the majority of those councilmen stepped aside, and Tilghman began what would prove a rocky relationship with a second elected-body.

Tilghman battled recall petitions, the somewhat unpopular hirings of a police chief, a fire chief and a city attorney. She was in the mayor’s seat when bloggers gained an Internet following and stirred the political pot to unfathomable currents.

Things reached their crescendo when the mayor and her daughter were involved in a physical altercation with a city councilwoman outside the Government Office Building. What exactly happened that night is still subject to speculation, but it placed Salisbury’s political strife in the national headlines.

There were significant accomplishments: She successfully navigated a full-scale rebellion from a Salisbury volunteer fire company; built a new fire department headquarters, oversaw new regulations regarding troublesome rentals, opened the inner-workings of government and was an advocate for the neighborhoods.

She was smart, she was tough, she had ideas — and she wasn’t afraid to voice them.

Barrie Tilghman was surely a change-agent. How she’ll fit into Salisbury’s history books isn’t yet certain; what is certain is her tenure will be long remembered..

Q. What are you doing in retirement?  

A. I have two grandsons, born since I left office and it is nice to be able to drop everything and spend time with them.

My daughter was married last year and it was almost a full time job for months to help her with her planning. I loved it! With my husband retired, we are able to travel.

Sometimes it is nice to have time to read and take on projects, long delayed at home.

Q. What issues are you working on/concerned about?

A. I remain very interested in politics and am active in campaigning for candidates whom I believe in. I have also taken on a role in raising friends and funds for the MAC Center’s great effort to help women with therapy and medication after traditional cancer treatment.

This program emphasizes taking control of your life in every aspect from therapy to diet as a way to combat cancer and its devastating side effects.

Q. Why did you want to be mayor?

 A. That is an interesting question.

I was asked that during my first campaign one Saturday afternoon in 1998 on McKinley Street. I never wanted to be mayor. I simply wanted things to change in Salisbury.

The 1998 election gave us an open mayoral seat for the first time in 16 years. I went to several individuals whom I respected and asked them to consider running.

For good and valid reasons they declined, but they encouraged me to consider running. I went from laughing at the notion to excitement in the span of about nine months.

I grew up viewing Salisbury as the center of the Shore, and after living in Pennsylvania for over seven years, I was convinced that we had so much to offer and we were settling for less than we could be.

The climate of opinion in 1998 was that to be business friendly, the neighborhoods had to suffer and stagnate. The prevailing opinion was that sprawl growth was inevitable and we had no way to direct or plan it.

I ran to include the voice of the neighborhoods in policy and planning and to bring all the interests to the table.

It was idealistic, but it incorporated the idea that economic development and quality of life in the city’s neighborhoods were inextricably linked.

 Q. Talk about what it was like growing up in this community.

 A. Well, I grew up in Allen. Salisbury was where it was “at.” I went to Bennett (High School) and the idea that I could live in Camden and get a ride home after school was something I dreamed of.

Downtown was incredible.

I remember the Saddle Club where my mother and aunt would take us after a shopping trip for a special dress for my older sister. They would have a drink and we would have a coke and french fries while Mother  and Aunt Betty conducted a post mortem on the shopping trip.

It was magic to sink into the red booths of the restaurant and listen to my mother and aunt.

Later, as a teenager, I ate lunch, with a girlfriend at the Read’s (Drugstore’s) downstairs restaurant or at the Woolworth’s lunch counter and went to Hess Juniors or Benjamin’s with my mother to buy a one-of-a-kind prom gown.

It was magical.

I could write a whole book about James M. Bennett in the 1960s — from the beginnings of the school to integration, assassinations, upheaval and then to the locker I shared with the guy I dated (and married).

All in all, it contributed to my love of the city of Salisbury.

 Q. Who are/were your political role models?

A. I brought home a number of pictures from my office in 2009 and decided to hang them in my living room.

They include Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and a group of WASP pilots, the “Pistol Packing Mamas.” JFK was included in the portraits as well as scenes from World War II.

 My greatest hero is my dad, a naval veteran who was at Midway and at the surrender/signing in Tokyo Bay in 1945.

Since leaving office, I have had the great opportunity to read the letters of my older sister’s father, who died in Okinawa in early May 1945, and he exemplifies the values that led me as mayor.

Harry Truman was a president more concerned with results than with legacy, and I admired him. He took care of the issues and left the legacy to history.

I had a fireman who compared me to Truman saying, “Give ‘em hell, Barrie,” and I took that as a compliment.

 Q. In your first mayoral race, you were considered an outsider.

A. I had never held elected office but I had spent time working on campaigns and issues that highlighted neighborhood concerns.

The night I announced my candidacy at the Chipman Center John Bozman from The Daily Times asked me how I expected to win as a David vs. Goliath candidate.

I responded that David won that contest.

I always thought I had a good chance to win the election because I knew that the city and the citizens were tired of the status quo. As the campaign went on, I felt even better because more and more people signed on to work to make a difference.

One afternoon, I was walking in the Princeton Homes neighborhood, and a citizen said he was going to vote for me even though he doubted that I could make a difference. I told him that I hoped I could make a difference in the city, but I needed help from the citizens.

I often thought of him as I worked my way through three terms as mayor.

 Q. How were you able to pull off a victory?

A. I believe that in 1998 there was a groundswell for change in the city. I was able to tap into that energy.

I was blessed with a great and talented campaign team who believed in the city’s potential and who worked very hard to win that election. I came into the election with a lot of political and civic experience and that really helped build a coalition of support.

 Q. When you entered office you were confronted by the Coulbourn Dykes situation. Describe that.

A. Confronted is a good word to describe the situation.

Within 36 hours of my election, Maryland State Police, Wicomico Sheriff’s deputies and City Police officers approached me with serious allegations surrounding Chief Dykes.

After receiving enough evidence to determine there was substance to the allegations, I went to the City Council, hoping that the council and I could go to the chief and convince him to resign and retire.

The Council ultimately declined to support this and, therefore, I moved forward, placing the chief on leave pending a hearing.

After a meeting between Chief Dykes’ attorney and the city’s attorneys, the chief made the decision to retire.

The case was referred to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. In October 1999, Chief Dykes died in a plane crash.

Following his death the attorney general released a report that concluded that the chief’s death made it impossible to move forward with the investigation. Subsequent to that, one of the major figures in the Dykes’ case was prosecuted and convicted on other charges.

While this was a difficult situation to face so soon after entering office, it also gave me a perspective that served me well in my tenure as mayor. I promised the citizens during the election that I would step up to the plate and make the tough decisions.

By the end of my first two months in office I was asked to do that and I did.

My parents always taught me that you are either part of the problem or the solution. Once you know there is a problem, you are part of that problem unless you stand up and speak for change.

While it was hard at the time, it was much easier than living with and allowing a problem to continue.

 Q. It has been observed that Salisbury elects reasonable people to the City Council, but there’s something in the water at the GOB that turns the occupants of Room 301 into unreasonable people.

A. The problem arises when people run for City Council without an understanding of the role of the mayor and the City Council.

Too often individuals come into office believing the role of the City Council is more executive than legislative. Then they are frustrated that they cannot do more.

They spend way too much time in the minor details of government instead of thinking strategically and directing policy through legislative priorities.

Councils that make a difference — and I had the opportunity to work with strategic council members — understand that they have a great deal of influence through working with the executive (mayor) to implement far reaching policy changes.

Too often, councils spend time arguing with the mayor about minor details and not concentrating on ways to improve the citizens’ quality of life.

We have seen too many examples of that in the past. The citizens are the losers when this type of thinking prevails.

 Q. What are your best memories from being mayor?

A. That is hard because there were so many.

Certainly working with the Governor’s Office to implement a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from Salisbury University for the complex at University Park was a high point. It benefited the taxpayers of the city and it was a great example of how government can work.

Working with the state to jump-start the Downtown Salisbury revitalization in getting the Brew River Restaurant built was fun.

Building up the Neighborhood Roundtable and increasing citizen involvement was important to me.

I have many great memories of working with the talented people who work for the city to make things happen, as well as great citizens who gave selflessly of their time and energy.

The Friends of the Bandstand, started by Bill Briddell, Kaye Records and Lynn Cathcart comes to mind as a great example of citizens coming together to address a problem and make a positive difference.

There were just a lot of great times; that is why I ran for re-election twice.

 Q. What were your low moments?

A. Low moments were dealing with City Council members who wanted to be mayor and watching them take a lot of staff energy and time away from issues and tasks that could help the citizens’ quality of life.

 Q. Was Allan Webster the correct choice for police chief?

A. Absolutely! He was the voice of reason and experience that the city needed at the time.

He came into office amidst a controversy over a shooting (the McDonald’s incident in West Salisbury) and he worked long and hard to establish a sense of trust and competency in the Police Department.

He established a consistent policy within the department that replaced an arbitrary and uneven internal policy. He came to the city with an impeccable and unblemished record and he moved quickly, quietly and effectively to re-establish the public’s respect and pride in the department.

His leadership style did not include being the front-man on the TAC Team, but he was always at the helm, advocating for his officers and staff.

The enhanced benefits/retirement program the department now enjoys was the result of his work and commitment.

 Q. Talk about the often-criticized tax structures that seem to hurt city residents.

A. That should be a subject for a series of news articles.

We are one of only four counties in the state that gets no consideration for duplicate services. That is, services that the county provides that the city does not use.

The easiest example to understand is police service. This not only affects city residents but also affects city businesses in a major way.

It needs to change for the taxpaying citizens of Salisbury and for the business owners of the City.

It is a question of fairness and economic development. In short it is in the best interest of Wicomico County to adopt a tax set-off policy and it is possible within the constraints of the revenue cap.

More and more people are living in the incorporated cities and towns, especially those of Fruitland, Delmar and Salisbury so it is really critical to have a meaningful analysis of this issue.

 Q. Who did you enjoy working with most?

A. Working with John Pick as city administrator was a real high point of my tenure as mayor.

John and I are the same age and shared children of similar ages so we always had a common frame of reference. He was the consummate professional and had a great ability to take on special assignments and produce phenomenal results. He was a great public servant and Salisbury was blessed to have him for so many years. I was blessed to have him as city administrator and as a friend.

We dealt with a lot of tough and important issues with humor and solid judgment.

 Q. What do you think your legacy will be as mayor?

A. I hope it will be one that included more people in the work of the city.

We expanded the size, importance and effectiveness the Neighborhood Roundtable. We had neighborhood planning sessions to determine funding and work priorities.

In short, we tried very hard to make the city government accessible and effective for all citizens.

I also hope it will be one of professionalism. I changed the standard for appointing department directors and we transformed many departments into more efficient and effective service providers.

The Fire Department is one of the most striking examples of change to improve service delivery.

 Q. Is Salisbury entering a renaissance?

A. Yes! We began when we decided that downtown was capable of and ought to be more than just an office park.

It was a campaign issue when I ran for office and I was thrilled when the Downtown Plaza was opened and we expanded our definition of the footprint to include the Park and north prong and west side of the city.

We are slowly coming to realize that we do not have to settle for anything.

We are the home of a major university and an excellent medical center. We have a beautiful waterfront potential in our downtown and a central business location.

More and more people are choosing to live here because of our quality of life. The renaissance depends upon our coming to grips with our unlimited potential and embracing that potential.

Q. You’re known for having a keen vision of the future. What do you see for the city?

A. Tax equity with Wicomico County, which will further jumpstart the economy and attract more and more people to live in the urban core.

This will all help to preserve open space and enhance our quality of life.

We have not made the same mistakes that other areas of the country have in planning and sprawl and so we have more opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and successful good ideas.

I also believe that the increasing involvement of young people in the political life of the community indicates that Salisbury is alive and well.

 Q. What do you think of the current political leadership?

A. That is a dangerous question to answer. I have tried very hard since leaving office to be measured in my comments on the leadership.

I do think that we all sent a very clear message with last year’s election that we want to concentrate on positive change and not on negative energy.

I supported Jake Day and I think he is making a real difference in the tone and policy of the city.

I hope that the council’s appointment to fill the current vacant seat will reflect what we all said we wanted last year.

I also have to say that I have known Shanie Shields for 25 years and always thought she brings a common-sense perspective to every situation, which we really need in leadership.

 Q. What is your favorite thing about Salisbury?

A. The people. There is nothing the people of this city cannot and will not do if they are convinced of its importance.

Case in point is Ben’s Red Swings. This was conceived of and built during my second term, as mayor and I have always been proud of being part of the city that could make this happen in such a short time frame.

I think too of all the support organizations in the community, including HALO, Joseph House, Village of Hope and The Christian Shelter — to mention just a few.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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