Then & Now: A dip into Hyattsville’s mayoral history
By Stuart Eisenberg
On the occasion of Mayor Candace Hollingsworth’s departure from office, some observations about Hyattsville’s mayoral history seem fitting.
In June 1905, a local church held a costumed fundraiser at the Masonic Hall on Gallatin (then Spencer) Street. Performers staged a comedic mock trial over an alleged crime for a “packed to the walls” audience. The poor defendant was convicted and sentenced to “serve one year as mayor of Hyattsville” and, adding insult to injury, to pay costs of 30 cents: a statement about the often thankless nature of municipal service, certainly.
Hyattsville’s mayoral history began in 1900, when the eminently qualified Major Michael V. Tierney was elected as the city’s first mayor. Due to a charter change, Hyattsville had migrated from a commissioner form of governance (1886-1899) to a Common Council with three councilmanic wards, each with two representatives. Each ward councilor served a simultaneous two-year term. Tierney, an experienced leader, had been elected three times as one of the five at-large town commissioners, and had served as the commission’s president in 1897.
Although there has been a city administrator to run the daily affairs of the city since about 1980, our current city charter states, “The Mayor shall be the executive officer of the city with all the power necessary to secure the enforcement of all city ordinances, resolutions and laws under this (sic) Charter.” After 34 individuals and 121 years, the position serves essentially the same function as when it was first conceived.
Turn-of-the-century mayor and council didn’t manage everything themselves as the commissioners did. They hired a bailiff, a town engineer, an elected but salaried treasurer who kept the books, a town clerk who tended administrative affairs, and a town attorney who kept them out of trouble and strife — all part-time. But then as now, the mayor’s role was far more than just legislative and ceremonial.
Every mayor worth their salt did and does whatever must be done to ensure that things run as intended and actually get done to secure the welfare of residents and visitors. There is a vast universe of actions in the realm outside of a council chamber that a mayor travels to ensure that hungry residents get fed; that a flood-quelling levee gets built and maintained; that a life-threatening, at-grade railroad crossing gets bypassed; or that ensures that there are no obstructions to the city executing the largest commercial property annexation in the state’s history thereby securing a far more sustainable tax base.
Since the 1940s, the individual dreams of a hopeful candidate, plus paperwork, have been enough to get a name on the ballot.
Prior to that, Hyattsville mayors and councilors were selected through a nonpartisan convention process. Residents met in an open caucus during which eligible voters would nominate candidates for the position. Selected candidates would then compete in the election several weeks later.
No spoilers or dark horses made it to the gate. In the name of harmonious community relations or a reading of the crowd, many a nominated candidate nobly withdrew their name from consideration rather than pursue a contentious campaign that might disrupt the peaceful accord of the town.
As might be expected, political or social outsiders rarely established enough of a foothold to become mayor. All but three of the 34 Hyattsville mayors previously served as ward-based councilmembers.
Hollingsworth is not the first of Hyattsville’s mayors to leave office before the end of a term. Jesse S. Baggett (1951-54) was elected a county commissioner and so resigned and left, midterm, to assume the higher office. In Maryland, you cannot serve as an elected official for more than one government at a time.
The mayoral role started as an unpaid, part-time position with just a one-year term of office and meetings set monthly, or as necessary to conduct town business.
As the town grew, so did the demands on its chief executive. A cluster of six Hyattsville-centered bills hit the Maryland General Assembly in 1943, in an era when municipal charter changes required state legislative ratification.
Those bills established the staggered terms for councilmembers and the term lengths — 4 years for mayor, 4 years for council members — that we have now.
Also in 1943, the mayor’s salary went from $192 to $600 per year. For comparison, as of July 2021, mayoral compensation will be $16,151 per year.
Hyattsville has just four living former mayors now: Bob Armentrout, Bill Gardiner and Marc Tartaro, with Candace Hollingsworth joining their ranks. In the coming days, I’ll be discussing their mayoral experiences with them for a future article to broaden the scope of these reflections on the mayor’s role in Hyattsville’s historic development, get past the numbers, and put a more human face on this most difficult of roles that a resident can be sentenced to.
A newly compiled list of Hyattsville’s past mayors, along with an in-progress biographical database can be viewed here: www.dropbox.com/s/k2lvhdujoik4j3f/Mayors%20of%20HAyattsville.xlsx?dl=0.