In memoriam: Former Hyattsville Mayor Tom Bass remembered for putting residents first
By DOUGLAS S. DUDROW — Twenty-seven years after he left office, former Hyattsville Mayor Tom Bass’ fingerprints remain all over the city. That’s the type of impact he had during his 16 years — from 1979 to 1995 — serving the people of Hyattsville.
Tom died on Nov. 24 at age 75. He and his wife, Lillian, were married 55 years. They were living in Lewes, Del., at the time of his death.
In addition to implementing programs still running today, Tom fought hard for residents and sought their input. He did his best to save taxpayers money. This probably helped him be reelected three times.
I began serving on the Hyattsville City Council in 1979 and got to know Tom during his entire time as mayor. Born Dec. 7, 1943, Tom was only 35 when elected, making him one of the youngest mayors in city history. He served four terms. No one else has served more than two.
Tom, who graduated from Northwestern High School in 1962, was active in local political and community activities. Before running for mayor, he served as a Ward 5 councilmember from 1972-79. He was president of the Young Men’s Democratic Club of Prince George’s County and was, among other things, an active member of the American Heart Association, Maryland Municipal League and the Prince George’s Kiwanis Club and Jaycees.
Tom was an avid sports fan and youth coach. He served as volunteer president of the Hyattsville-Mt. Rainier-Brentwood Boys and Girls Club. About a month prior to his death, he was happy to see the Washington Nationals win the World Series.
Perhaps you or a family member have used Hyattsville’s Call-A-Bus program to get to a medical appointment or run errands. This service began under Tom’s leadership, in December 1990, when the city took advantage of a county program to purchase a van with a lift.
In October 1990, the city joined Prince George’s County in establishing what is now our highly successful recycling program. This move saved Hyattsville taxpayers more than $40,000 a year in landfill charges.
Tom also worked to improve our neighborhood parks, supported the establishment of a crime watch program and helped Hyattsville attain Tree City USA recognition from the Arbor Day Foundation.
In addition, Hyattsville was one of the first towns in the county to have a smoke-free building, our own cable channel and televised council meetings.
If you live in Hyattsville’s Historic District, which was registered with the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, and have remodeled your home, you might have benefitted from the state Homeowner Tax Credit. This credit began during Tom’s administration and has saved people thousands of dollars while helping to preserve and revitalize our older communities.
I recall another city program that started during Tom’s tenure gave people up to $20,000 toward rehabbing their home in the city. When the house was sold, $10,000 went back into the program. The other $10,000 was a grant.
Saving taxpayer dollars
Tom was bullish on saving the city money. When I first joined the council, we used to budget $200,000 a year for sidewalk improvement. Tom pointed out that we could get more work done, per square foot, by contracting the work rather than having city employees do it.
When we sold the Hyattsville Municipal Building on Jefferson Street, we rented it back until the new city hall on Gallatin Street was ready. However, the new owners tripled our rent. They said the rent was based on an eight-hour day, but because the police department was there 24 hours a day, they wanted to triple it.
Tom came up with the idea that what we were paying in rent would pay for two trailers. So the city bought them and put them on the Public Works lot. They were our temporary city headquarters. Once the new building was ready, in April 1990, we sold the trailers.
By the way, our current city hall came in under budget and was completed before scheduled.
Staff & council tension
Tom knew how to run a tight city council meeting. We’d meet on the first and third Mondays most of the year. We’d start at 8 p.m. and finish by 9:15. We councilmembers greatly appreciated this. He knew when to cut off debate, although sometimes a little too soon. It wasn’t until after he left office, in 1995, that we realized what a job he had trying to keep us all in line.
Tom was away from a meeting one night, and a newspaper incorrectly reported that we had sold the city building to WSSC. The next time we met, Tom looked around and said, “Wow, I miss one meeting, and you guys sold town hall.” We all laughed.
One of the complaints that we would get, always around election time, was that we didn’t talk about the budget enough. So Tom set up a council meeting for the express purpose of solely discussing the budget. After about 30 minutes, he grinned and said, “No one showed.” So we all went home.
On months with a fifth Monday, Tom held council meetings without staff. Things were always done openly, but because our ideas sometimes meant staff would have to do more work, they would discourage them. By having the ability to discuss ideas freely without staff rejecting them or not following up, I think we got a lot of good things accomplished.
Every two years, Tom would meet with the council on a Saturday morning as an orientation for new and present members. He wanted us to see how we could best work with one another. We certainly didn’t agree on everything, but he wanted to ensure that we weren’t letting petty differences prevent us from working for the citizens who had entrusted us to run the city. That practice ended when he left office.
Early in Tom’s first term, City Administrator Bob Johnson took ill. Tom filled in for him, and Bob Trumbule became acting mayor. The arrangement lasted about six months. I think this gave Tom a greater understanding of the work staff did. It also allowed him to see how several things the council had passed were not being implemented.
Another instance of tension between staff and the city’s elected leaders came when some of my constituents, who were resurfacing their driveways, wanted to install underground pipes to carry water away from their gutters and sump pumps. They asked me if the city would put pipes through the sidewalks to carry the water from their pipes to the street. The Public Works director at that time said no.
I still remember Tom telling the director something to the effect of, “You spend more time arguing about things than if you just went out and did it. This is the right thing to do.”
The residents won.
Ever since the rise of the automobile following World War II and the end of streetcar service to Hyattsville in 1958, city leaders have struggled with traffic. In the 1980s, residents wanted speed humps, but staff said we couldn’t install them because we’d get sued.
At a convention in Ocean City, we found out many other towns had installed speed humps. So, we set up a Saturday meeting for residents and people from several towns to talk about what we could do along the lines of speed humps vs. speed bumps, raised crosswalks and curb bump outs. (The latter extends the crosswalk into the street as a traffic-calming measure.)
Traffic consultants we hired suggested we close Crittenden Street, Jefferson Street and Queensbury Road at Route 1, similar to what University Park did with Queens Chapel Road. We knew we couldn’t do that, so we developed our own traffic committee.
In anticipation of the opening of the Prince George’s Plaza Metro Station in December 1993, Queensbury Road traffic was of particular concern. We knew the two-lane street couldn’t handle the additional traffic of people cutting through town rather than taking East-West Highway.
Tom’s idea was to close Queensbury westbound at 43rd Ave. between 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. We knew this would inconvenience some residents, but it was the best plan we came up with. The concept is good, and multiple drivers turn south on 43rd Avenue, but hundreds of cars still pass through there each morning.
During conversations with the people who conducted the traffic study, Tom went to Laurel, with then-city leaders Don Waltrip, chief of the Hyattsville Fire Department; Marge Wolfe, city administrator; and Bob Perry, chief of police.
Waltrip said he’d rather not have speed humps but could live with the ones he drove over in Laurel. He recommended no speed humps on Queensbury. Those that were installed elsewhere on city streets were built to the same specs as the ones in Laurel.
In February 1991, largely through Tom’s efforts, Hyattsville was awarded a $135,000 Community Development Block Grant to revitalize commercial activity on Route 1. The effort was housed on Baltimore Avenue three doors down from where the Green Onion is now. Carlton Greene donated the space.
Jim Welborn, Bruce Eberwein, Gene Logan and Ed Trumbule managed the office space and met with entrepreneurs during Tom’s tenure. Their goal was to bring businesses into Hyattsville on Route 1 and Hamilton Street in West Hyattsville.
One of the key components toward revitalizing business opportunities on Route 1 — Hyattsville’s Main Street — was the reconstruction of the Alternate U.S. Route 1 bridge. During the 1988 ribbon-cutting ceremony to reopen the overpass, Tom was proud to stand alongside Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, State Secretary Winfield Kelly, Prince George’s County Executive Parris Glendening, State Delegate Richard Palumbo and U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer.
Tom, working with many of the same county and state officials, got Charles L. Armentrout Drive and the railroad underpass built. This replaced and closed Melrose Crossing across from what is now Pizza Paradiso. In 1972, it had been the site of a fatal accident between a Hyattsville fire truck and train.
“Working cooperatively with all levels of government is the only way to deliver major projects to our City,” Tom said in his 1991 campaign flyer.
While the major revitalization of Route 1 came in the early 2000s, much of the momentum for the great shops and residences we have there today began under Tom’s leadership.
The City of Hyattsville, which now bills itself as “A World Within Walking Distance,” is much-better place to live, work and play through Tom’s tireless efforts. Those of us who enjoy the fruits of his labor owe him a debt of gratitude.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Douglas S. Dudrow is a lifelong resident of Hyattsville. He served on the city council from 1979-2005 and 2007-2011. Chris McManes contributed to this report.