Q&A: Matt Creamer reflects on service to Wicomico

From 1973 through 2001, Matthew Elmer Creamer III was the man behind the curtain in Wicomico County’s government.

During those decades, the county operated under a model in which the County Council ran things as a collective. Creamer, their Administrative Director, was their hired gun who oversaw the county departments, prepared their budgets and guided every decision they made.

While it was the elected officials who walked in the spotlight, it was Creamer who made the county run — quietly, unassumingly and always acting with discretion.

A New Jersey native, Creamer first arrived in Salisbury in spring 1967. Having just completed graduate school, he accepted a job in the county’s Planning Office.

“When I first arrived in town, my first night was going to be at the Miami Court (on North Salisbury Boulevard) because that’s all I could afford,” Creamer recalled.

“But Richard Burris, a fraternity brother from Western Maryland College, his parents lived in Salisbury. Richard’s Dad, Bert, was the circulation manager at The Daily Times, and he had some pull in the community.

“Bert managed to persuade Margaret Pillsbury (a well-known Salisbury property manager and real estate broker) to move my name a little higher on the waiting list at Oak Hill (Townhouses). He must have bothered Margaret to death, because Richard’s mom invited me to stay on their couch, and I stayed with them for about a week.”

Creamer assumed his time in Salisbury would be short and he’d move up the career ladder in other municipalities. In 1973, however, then-Council President Lewis R. Riley and colleagues hired him to serve as the county’s administrator. With the Charter Change looming and the creation of an elected County Executive position, Creamer retired in 2001.

He and his wife, Bonnie, left their Newtown Victorian for a home off of Nanticoke Road, far out in the county. He began living a semi-retired life, in which he did some freelance governmental consulting.

Then, one day in 2007, while driving on a family trip to New York, the car phone rang. It was County Council President John Cannon calling, asking if Creamer would return to county service — but this time as the Council Administrator.

“John said the Council Administrator had resigned and wanted to know if I would consider coming back in that role. I would never have expected that to happen. It wasn’t anything to which I would have aspired.

“To be polite, I said I’d consider it.”

He said when the family stopped for lunch, the conversation immediately turned to the opportunity. His family was unanimous that he pursue it.

“My wife and two adult children said, ‘Why don’t you do it? You loved what you did. They obviously need you or they wouldn’t be asking you to come back.’ ”

Creamer admitted he was desirous.

“It’s never been a secret that I always loved what I did. I had served the government of Wicomico County a majority of my adult life. I had been away for seven years.”

Creamer met with the entire body, seeking assurances that everyone would be comfortable with his return — and making sure they knew what they were getting in him.

“I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in,” I told them.

“I said I would stay until the end of that council’s term. The next council came in and asked me to continue my service. The last council did the same. They call the shots.”

After 50 years in town and 43 years in direct county service, Creamer made his second retirement official last fall, formally stepping down last Friday.

His successor will be Laura Hurley, his deputy of more than a year and a longtime paralegal in the County Attorney’s Office.

Retirement will mean spending more time with Bonnie and his children: a son, 34 and daughter, 32. There will also be time for his 2-year-old grandson, Matthew Elmer Creamer V. Additionally, Creamer will continue his primary hobby as banjo player for the Backfin Banjo Band.

Q. This is the second retirement story I’ve had to write for you.

A. Well, you can just drag out and rerun the old one and change the numbers.

Q. How was this second stint for you? For years, you were “the man” in county government. This role with the council was a bit more subservient in nature. It was quieter, and you were too.

A. Well, then I’ve been able to have at least had a modicum of success in conveying that persona. You’re absolutely right — the Council Administrator is just that. The position serves the administrative needs of the legislative body, and that’s very clear in the new charter.

I’ve always seen it as working for the entire council, and I’ve always made it one of the administrator’s top responsibilities to make sure the entire council is being served in terms of information. I believe that’s essential for this form of government to function.

Q. Did you support the change to an elected County Executive?

A. (It’s immediately clear Creamer doesn’t want to answer this question.) I left before any of that happened. That came about later. I didn’t have any role in that process at all. I was just a voter.

Q. But you saw it coming.

A. Of course.

Q. It had been talked about for a while?

A. Yes, it had been talked about years and years before. Not widely in the public but there were proponents in county government. One longstanding proponent was Vic Laws, Ken Matthews too — and that was purely from a philosophical point of view. It was their view that a single individual should be held responsible for the setting the direction of where the county government was going. That was essentially the point.

That thought grew, and as some people would say — took legs.

Q. When that was being thought of, people must have thought that you would be the guy — you’d be that elected person.

A. Some did. And I had been encouraged to run for the position. But I had never had any ideas about holding elected office. I would much rather be the adviser, the manager.

Q. I have always seen you as the “King of Discretion.” You really know when not to talk. When you do talk, as a result, your words have great weight. Is that something you taught yourself? Is that just who you are?

A. I think a lot of these things are learned. I try not to speak unless there’s something that needs to be said. I’m not a policy-maker, so it’s not my place in a public forum to be one who speaks out to be part of the discussion.

I learned from my good friend Bob Lawrence — he made a comment to me very early in my career …

Q. Bob was well known for speaking his mind ….

A. He was a newly appointed County Council member, because Dick Wooten had resigned for health reasons. I don’t remember what the conversation was but I said something.

Bob, in his very wonderful and characteristic manner, said: “Matt, you’re not the sixth councilman.”

And I’ve never forgotten that obviously very important lesson.

Q. I have to say the egos, against the backdrop in the government charter change, have fascinated me — in that I never saw any. You have a situation where you’re in charge for 30 years, then an elected County Executive comes in (in your case Rick Pollitt) and occupies your office, your deputy for nearly an entire career takes the County Administrator role (Ted Shea), and then you wind up just a few feet down the hall in the Council Administrator’s office. I would have imagined people coming to you all the time questioning the new top management — and you would be put on the spot. You know all the stuff that’s on the executive’s desk. You know his job better than he does in terms of employees, the public and the council. You have great insight, and it would have been easy for you to be either critical or supportive.

A. I have a clear understanding of what my role and responsibility are to the people of Wicomico County today, and since 2007, and that is to assist the legislative body.

I don’t have any responsibilities in the executive branch. Occasionally my point of view is requested, and I’m happy to give that — not in a public setting, because I’m not a policy person.

You know, when we had the beginning of this grand experiment, and there were people running for County Executive, several of the candidates at the primary level asked to talk with me and I was happy to talk to them. I took the position that that I wasn’t supporting or not supporting that candidate; I was simply sharing with that person knowledge that I had.

I felt like that was an obligation because the information was mine, it was what I had learned as a servant of the county — and I would have told it to any citizen as well.

Someone said I was the last man standing with the long historical perspective, but that’s just because I was there and remember.

Q. Does the public truly understand its local government?

A. The county is a big business. It’s really a big operation in terms of dollars — not as counties go, we’re sort of low-middle, but it’s a large operation with heavy responsibilities.

You know, when I retired, one of the epiphanies that came to me rather quickly was how little the public at large generally cares. They don’t pay that much attention to either city or county government, unless there’s an issue of particular issue to them — you might say unless their ox is being gored.

Q. Not until there’s a big tax hike do you get an entity like VOICE.

A. Well, that and smaller things. When it’s time to talk about the county roads budget, it’s a big yawn, but when there’s a hole in the street in front of my house, I demand action.

I think it was (longtime County Councilman) Phil Tilghman who made the comment that one of the reason people didn’t pay attention was because they didn’t have to think about it, that they considered it a well-oiled machine.

You can look at that two different ways, because this experiment that we call a democracy, a republic broken down into 50 states and some 3,000 counties and who knows how many municipalities — and whether it works well or it doesn’t work well, it still keeps going.

And we have a responsibility, I believe and I think most people here believe, and that’s a responsibility that it should be handled efficiently, effectively. Sometimes people think government is doing a good job, sometimes they think it isn’t, but most people have a difficult time discerning the different levels.

The public is going to work at their jobs, they’re trying to provide a lifestyle for their families and they don’t want to be burdened by government. They just want the work to get done.

Most of the time does happen. But then you’ll see, as we did with the Great Recession just a few years ago, that can be very difficult keeping those balls in the air — and some of those balls we can’t keep in the air.

Q. You confronted some hard issues — the Juvenile Boot Camp, VOICE. What were the hardest things you had to deal with?

A. I really don’t know how to answer that. I don’t look at any one or two things — all of those things you mentioned are issues. I think more about things like the map right behind you (points to his office wall). In the Morris Mill area, we had water contamination problems. That was a big problem for those people (in Morris Mill) and it could have become a big problem for the whole county because we didn’t know how far it was going to go.

But it was dealt with and as expeditiously as possible. Those things come along and you just deal with them — you try to deal with them by choosing the best solution among the alternatives that are valuable.

Q. There certainly were lots of dynamic people on the County Council through the years,- some real characters, and you’ve been exposed to all of them.

A. You know, that been one of the highlights of my life to have — it’s like getting four or five PhDs — to have gotten so much information from giants.

I hesitate to name any because I couldn’t begin to name them all, but here were just some incredibly successful people who were just giants.

Q. I’ll throw some names out and you react if you want to. Victor Laws Sr. — what was his influence on your life?

A.  (Long chuckle.) Victor was clearly a mentor to me. I respected him enormously, I liked him. There were many times when I didn’t agree with him. But that didn’t matter in the overall scheme of things.

There was no doubt that he was most interested in what was in the best interest of the people of Wicomico County. Whether I agree with a person or not, as long as I’m convinced that’s their motive, that’s all that matters, because that’s all that matters to me.

You can’t spend a lot of time around someone like Vic Laws and not learn something.

Q. Henry Parker.

A. You know, Henry and I had a very special relationship, and I think most of the people in Wicomico County would say that about themselves and Henry.

He was president of the County Council for a long time and no one could have ever had a greater love of Wicomico County and of the people of the county.

I can remember walking down Main Street with Henry one day, and I cannot begin to tell you what the topic of conversation was, but he said (Creamer switches to a dead-on impression of Parker): “Matt Creamer, you know what the problem with you is? You’re just too conservative. And I said, Henry, that’s the nicest thing you could ever say to me.”

Q. Phil Tilghman.

A.  Again, a very different personality. Both he and Henry were gifted and very successful in their businesses. You can’t spend time around Phil without learning a lot.

Q. Betty Gardner.

A. She was the “Mother of Tourism” for Wicomico County. She was a visionary. Look at what the county has become in terms of a destination. Wicomico County wasn’t thought of in that way until Betty Gardner got it started.

Q. Edgar Morris.

A. Another great teacher. I can remember Edgar — we were in budget session, and there was a debate about the funding level of something, and Edgar, in a very special way said, “Boys, what we’re talkin’ about here, seems to me, is we’re putting a hundred-dollar saddle on a 10-dollar horse.” He made his point.

Q. What about people like Jim Betts?

A. Jim Betts and I had a very special relationship — I didn’t take much of what he was saying seriously and he didn’t consider me to be the root cause of whatever the problem happened to be. (Laughs.)

I will say Jim had to have a great love for Wicomico County or he would not have invested so much of his time in his later years; he was as faithful in his attendance of council meetings as any of the council members were. He was quick to be critical and he, sometimes, was complimentary if he felt the situation was deserving.

Q. Norm Conway.

A. We attend the same church (Bethesda United Methodist). My recollection of meeting him was (in 1967) when I had to meet with him about a zoning issue in the city of Salisbury. He was working at his third job, and I went there to see him. He worked for the Board of Education, was on the City Council and worked at Sears & Roebuck in their Appliance Department (and I went there).

Few people will every really understand the great contribution he made to Maryland, the Eastern Shore and Wicomico County in particular during his career in the Maryland legislature. The things he was able to do get funding was overwhelming. He was respected all over the state.

Q. What can we expect from your successor, Laura Hurley?

A. She’s going to do a terrific job. I leave here feeling very good about it. It’s very important to me that the person is well equipped, and Laura is very well equipped.

The council now will have two years with someone new before the next election.

Q. OK, we have to talk about you and the banjo.

A. Some people will tell you I have only worked for Wicomico County to support my banjo habit.

Q. Are you any good on the banjo? I don’t know enough where I can tell if you’re good.

A. Nah. I have a great deal of fun. That’s another 50-year mark — I started playing for hire in 1966.

When I was a boy, some nights I would go to bed, before going to sleep I’d turn on the radio. I’d seek out a station, and whenever I heard banjo music I just loved it. I lived in South Jersey and I could get WWVA in Wheeling, W.Va.

Then later when I was in high school, I had a summer job (driving a truck) , and I worked with a guy — well, the whole team I was with, these men were from the Southern states and they had run afoul of the law for the manufacture of untaxed whiskey. They were pretty interesting people.

(Like County Council leaders) I learned a lot from them too — but not how to make whiskey.

This one fellow had a banjo and he sold it to me for $25. That’s what I used to teach myself how to play. I just picked it up and started messing with it. I learned a long time ago that playing the banjo is 99 percent perspiration and 1 percent inspiration.

Earl Beardsley and I have been playing together for 30-some years. Last season was my 37th season at the Red Roost. That’s a lot fun.

Q. So, you never expected to stay — and yet you’ve given your entire adult life to Wicomico County.

A. That was the Lord’s work. I’ve always felt like I’ve been doing the Lord’s work as long as I’ve been working. I don’t believe in luck. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. That’s not an original statement by me.

I have been blessed my whole career, been blessed to work with wonderful people. I’ve had the privilege of working for every County Council (except one) when we started Charter government in 1966.

I have loved it here. It has been my home. I have loved the people. I have always loved what I do.

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