Mayor Jim Ireton: I am ‘genuine’ and ‘direct’

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Jim Ireton is into his second term as Salisbury’s mayor. His time in office has been filled with series of tests: navigating City Council infighting, facing fire department leadership questions, prosecuting a massive lawsuit concerning the city’s wastewater treatment plant, replacing the city’s executive officer in charge of administration, replacing the city attorney, leading neighborhood cleanups, battling through lawyers over the plight of the police chief, hiring a new police chief and working to lower the city’s crime rate.

Through it all, Ireton has employed humor, people skills, moxie and a unique form of leadership to face issue after issue.

Ireton has a passion about Salisbury that is apparent at all times. Even his critics will say that though they oppose his methods, they admire his love for the city and his willingness to embrace its residents.

Salisbury has a strong-mayor form of government. The mayor is responsible for overseeing the various departments in the city, although most day-to-day functions are managed by the administrator. Legislative and oversight functions are the purview of the elected council.

The mayor was was raised on Hazel Street and later Pennsylvania Avenue in Salisbury. He also, as a child lived in Pocomoke City, the epitome of an Eastern Shore small town. Ireton counts himself a complete Salisburian. A teacher in the county’s public school system, Ireton balances a profession in education and public service.

Q. There’s a feeling that Salisbury is on the cusp of a possible renaissance. Do you agree? What is happening to make it so?

A. It feels like a renaissance because we are finally accomplishing the many things that our citizens have waited a long time for.  Addressing the city crime stats and tangible downtown revitalization are two areas where I have taken a firm stance – and now with the help of Jake Day and the city council – we have the pedal to the floor as we move forward.

Q. Your five years as mayor has certainly contained some drama. How have you managed to weather so many tests?

A. Drama?  What drama? (Laughs.) I’ve never been sure if politics and entertainment are a direct reflection of people, in general, or vice versa.

I’ve weathered my drama, some self-induced some not, by being genuine and direct.

I also don’t make promises I can’t keep.  I’m still true to the values and beliefs that our neighborhoods sent me here with.

Taking on the big battles will be trumped up into drama by the media.  I don’t shy away from those battles.

Q. How are things going in the neighborhoods? What problems are you tackling?

A. I have, with some effectiveness, let bad property owners know that we will not tolerate them anymore.  That mantra guides work in my office every day.  Though we now have chronic nuisance laws and property receivership laws and are making progress – we still have yet to get definite answers on non-conforming use properties.  Hence – many of our single-family residential neighborhoods are still at risk for a set of tenants or a landlord that devalues surrounding properties and neighborhoods.  I live in such a place.  It is clear that not all tenants or landlords disregard our laws – yet it only takes one bad experience to affect property values and community morale.

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Q. The City Council suddenly seems a whole lot less dysfunctional. It seems like there is some continuing progress on big issues. What do you owe that to?  

A. Being less dysfunctional implies that there was some sort of epiphany and somebody’s views changed.  That did not happen. An election happened.  Jake Day and Laura Mitchell have led a council that has seen 90 percent of my downtown and neighborhood initiatives passed.  Additionally, we have dropped water and sewer rates by 10 percent in two years.

Salisbury is more business friendly, environmentally friendly, crime is down and downtown is rocking and rolling.  That sort of progress is possible when a mayor and council are committed to doing the people’s business.

Q. Your pro-business attitude seems to be winning you some surprising followers.

A. Working with the Chamber of Commerce to improve our business climate has been a pleasure.  Our EDAT (Economic Development Action Team), our EDU (Equivalent Dwelling Unit) Free Zone for Downtown, changes to our paving policy, and the creation of a level playing field for high end water (not sewer) users like Pepsi and Perdue have really changed our reputation.  Salisbury is the economic engine that drives the peninsula and I am committed to a fair playing field for our business community.

Q. Salisbury and crime have seemed rather synonymous in recent years. There seems to be a change there.

A. By the end of 2013, most statistics had Salisbury’s Part 1 crimes down by over 50 percent.  Those numbers have crept up through the first half of 2014, hence our investment in SPD of 15 officers hired or back on patrol in our streets.  Salisbury continues to grow and there is little I can do to change the perception we have when our media outlets continue scaring the daylights out of people in order to get them to watch the news.

Q. People seem to really like the police chief. Talk about your effort to add more officers.

A. Chief Barbara Duncan is one of my personal heroes. The chief feels the ups and downs of city life.

Seldom have I met a professional who knows how to meet the needs of her employees, the community and a highly engaged mayor.  I have had differences with her on tasers and speed cameras, but I believe she is the leader here in law enforcement.

The 15 officers headed into our streets over the next year are a direct result the use of neighborhood data, predictive policing models and community policing strategies used by Chief Duncan and me.

Q. Your political rise came through neighborhood activism. Talk about Salisbury’s neighborhoods. What makes them special? What are their problems?

A. Our neighborhoods will always face an uphill battle until we give them the tools they need to deal with residences that do not contribute to the quality of the neighborhood.  Again, chronic nuisance laws and receivership laws we have are a start, yet wide-scale systemic change is still needed.

All of our neighborhoods have had to deal with the significant losses in property value because the bubble burst.  How long it will take to recover is hard to say when the rental industry is snapping up properties for little or nothing.

The situation has improved, but it has not been solved.

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Q. Talk about the city’s relationship with Salisbury University.

A. That relationship is better than ever.  I am on campus as much as I possibly can be with students.  They are a part of our crime reduction strategies.  They are a part of our economic and cultural engine.

I cite Chief Lashley’s relationship with Chief Duncan as being at the heart of the improvement.  Dr. (Janet) Eshbach has been a leader in bringing SU’s Art Gallery – Downtown Campus into the revitalization mix.  She has been a leader, along with Dr. Peggy Naleppa at PRMC and Dr. Juliet Bell at UMES, in realizing the dream of having education and medicine be driving factors in downtown revitalization.

Q. You’ve made river cleanup a priority. Can anything really be done there?

A. The Wicomico River has to be approached regionally.  Our watershed extends north into Delaware, and northeast to the Worcester County line.  As we upgrade our wastewater treatment plant, it is important for the state and for environmentalists to recognize the huge investments that cities, farmers, and septic system owners have made to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus levels in the watershed.

The City Council is working hard to craft a fair stormwater utility ordinance.  The work of Dr. Judith Stribling and the Wicomico Creekwatchers should be applauded for their efforts in supplying relevant data that we use to plot our course.

In the end, the river health will improve when all groups are working in the same direction.  We do our best to keep trash out, we’ve removed abandoned barges from the North Prong and are empowering residents to get involved with lawn fertilization strategies that aren’t bad for river (and bay) health.

Q. What else do you want to get done in your second term?

A. I have five things on my list:

1.  Move quickly to get the additional 15 SPD officers on our streets.

2.  Finalize a fair, equitable, and paid for Fire Service Agreement with Wicomico County.

3.  Initiate a city-wide discussion about non-conforming use houses in our single-family neighborhoods.

4.  Break ground on a large, mixed-use development in Downtown Salisbury.

5.  Work with “Stop the Violence” on Calloway Street to secure a permanent home for their operation that works with so many kids in the Church Street/Doverdale neighborhoods.

Q. What’s next for Jim Ireton?

A. The elections in 2015!

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

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