A long list of urgent needs sits before Christopher Shorter as he leads Baltimore’s executive team through a weekly Zoom leadership meeting. A city report on how local tax credits are both inefficient and unfair will publish soon: What solutions are available? Residents are reporting that squeegee kids are scamming motorists via Cash App: How can leadership help victims and prevent future thefts? The city is digitizing payroll and expense reports: How will workers be onboarded?

The wide-ranging challenges all fall to Shorter, who as Baltimore’s first ever Chief Administrative Officer has the gargantuan task of making the city more efficient. Per city charter, he must improve agencies’ performance and abilities to serve residents — a charge he calls transformation work.

On this Friday morning, Shorter, his direct reports and other officials, including Mayor Brandon Scott’s then-chief of staff Michael Huber, gather to suss out the answers. If Shorter is daunted by the tasks at hand, he doesn’t show it.

“Last week’s agenda was so long we were not able to get to everything,” Shorter tells his staff, before diving into today’s agenda at a steady clip. As he discusses plans to publicize the tax report and forge a relationship with Cash App’s government relations office, fellow city leaders listen intently from their computers, chiming in with details when necessary. If they interrupt Shorter and apologize, he instructs them in a deep, steady voice not to be sorry.

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Scott named Shorter for the position in December 2020 to roust city services out of complacency. He directly manages several critical departments, including finance, human resources and an office tasked with distributing more than $600 million in federal stimulus funding, and oversee the leaders of agencies spanning from the Department of Public Works to the Fire Department.

About 20 months into his job, Shorter has led much of what Scott has touted as his administration’s foundational work, but many of his boss’s well-publicized goals remain in the planning stages. Some City Hall officials say the administrator has reduced red tape, giving them more time to meet the needs of residents. Others feel his office has added another layer to the profoundly hapless bureaucracy, pointing to a series of departures by his direct reports and fitful progress in standard services such as recycling.

Debates over how to best fashion a mayoral cabinet

Every Baltimore mayor rearranges their organizational chart — Catherine Pugh eschewed the deputy mayor system that many Baltimore mayors used, for example — but Scott took steps to make the city administrator role a permanent one before he stepped into the mayor’s office.

Nearly every other county in Maryland and most mid-size cities have city administrators, a role that Jason Grant, the director of advocacy at the International City/County Management Association, conceptualizes as the chief operating officer to an elected official’s CEO.

“The mayor has their own policies, their own visions, goals for the direction of the city. The administrator’s job is to move forward that vision as effectively, equitably and efficiently as possible,” he said.

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After winning the 2020 Democratic mayoral primary, which all but guarantees a win in deep-blue Baltimore’s general election, then-City Council President Scott introduced a charter amendment to enshrine the position in city charter. He argued a chief administrative officer would bring City Hall into the 21st century by streamlining city services and basic operations.

City voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in the November 2020 election. An International City/County Management Association analysis of similar charter amendments throughout the country found that about 50% were approved. “People like the idea of having someone professional running a government,” Grant said.

Scott nominated Shorter for the position shortly after he took office, citing his experience as one of four assistant city managers in Austin, Texas, where he managed the health, parks, sustainability and solid waste departments. He also worked in Washington, D.C.’s local government for ten years, where he held top roles at the public works and health departments. Shorter received a master’s in public affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Shorter, earning $255,000 last year, is the second-highest paid city employee behind Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison. Scott will earn just under $200,000 as mayor this year.

Building an office from the ground up

“What I didn’t want to do, and I fortunately didn’t do, is come in thinking because I had some success in other places, that it would immediately mean success here,” Shorter said of his first days in Baltimore. That meant taking time to learn “the people, the systems, the relationships” from the mayor and other city leaders as he built up the office.

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Shorter believes the most effective governments have streamlined communications between different agencies — much of his time in Baltimore has been attempting to break down silos. He’s enacted policies as simple as requiring employees to set up their voicemails to establishing multi-agency workgroups to tackle sweeping problems, such as nuisance properties subject to frequent complaints. That group gathers officials from public works, housing, homeless services and the liquor board to identify repeat offenders and develop tailored solutions, such as enforcing parking and noise restrictions.

“It wouldn’t necessarily organically happen that all those very disparate agencies would come together and look at approaching this holistically,” said Chichi Nyagah-Nash, who served as Shorter’s deputy until leaving in June to take a job as chief of staff at Whitebox, a Baltimore-based e-commerce company.

Councilwoman Danielle McCray said the bolstered collaboration has allowed her to quickly address constituent needs that otherwise would have dragged on for weeks, such as closing an opened manhole in her district.

“When I need to bring agencies together and we need to come to a full plan or how to take action, I loop in the CAO’s office,” she said. “Going to him is easier than saying, ‘Hey, I need the law department, BPD and DOT [transportation] in the room.’”

Council members have long complained that too much of their day is spent coordinating a response from city agencies. Now, McCray said, she has more time to devote to policy.

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Key among Shorter’s passion projects is reforming Baltimore’s long-embattled vendor payment system. The city had $22.5 million in outstanding invoices when he arrived in City Hall, some of which were outstanding for months. Shorter hired temporary workers to help clear the backlog; within a few months, he reduced the outstanding balance to $5.7 million. Procurement reform remains ongoing: despite the creation of a $10 million office to disburse pandemic-related federal funding, a backlog of grant payments to nonprofits ballooned, leaving some organizations unpaid for up to two years.

A charter amendment that will appear on Baltimore ballots in November seeks to move the accounts payable department from Shorter’s oversight to the comptroller’s. Comptroller Bill Henry said the amendment came about after he approached the Scott administration with a question: “‘You’ve got 99 problems. We’ve got four. How can we help?’ They said, ‘How would you feel about taking accounts payable?’”

Shorter coordinated the implementation of many of Scott’s pandemic response policies, from the employee vaccine mandate to the operation of testing centers for both residents and city workers. He oversaw the development of hybrid public meetings with virtual and in-person attendance options and the reopening of City Hall. A 2021 report by public health researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Baltimore fared better than most cities with similar demographic makeups when comparing rates of sickness, death and vaccination.

He is currently conducting a study of remote and hybrid work. Since late spring, more than 900 employees from information technology, human resources, transportation, planning, housing and other departments have had access to communal optional workplaces in different corners of the city. Shorter will use the study’s results to revise the city’s telework policy and has encouraged agency leaders to allow employees to work remotely if it doesn’t negatively affect agency operations.

When Scott entered office in 2020, he inherited a public works office that had cut monthly recycling pickups in half. Within a month, Shorter’s efforts allowed the city to resume weekly recycling. But in January, citing low-staffed crews and growing amounts of recycling materials, the city once again shifted pickups to every other week. Officials have yet to say when they expect weekly service to return.

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Shorter has also brought in Workday, human resources software that allows workers to enter time sheets and expense reports online. Previously, Scott said, the city was “stuck in the ’90s” with paper records that made tracking attendance, paid time off and other workforce statistics labor intensive.

“It is very difficult for any organization, no matter what sector, to measure success, if there’s no framework to measure it,” Shorter said.

Chief among the Scott administration’s promised frameworks are agency performance plans. Shorter and other senior officials will devise individual plans to improve agencies’ services and efficiency and hope to launch the plans in fiscal year 2024.

McCray said she is eager for those metrics to be established, a concern widely shared by other members of the council at a May budget hearing for Shorter’s office. “It’ll just be a level of transparency that everybody wants to see,” she said. “We need clearly measurable goals.”

Grant of the ICMA said the best way to evaluate a city administrator’s performance is by the quality of programs and services delivered to residents, as well as their willingness to share information with the public.

The dashboard of Open Checkbook — a database of vendor payments the Scott administration touted as a commitment to transparency — hasn’t updated its data since April of last year.

The mayor’s action tracker, which is updated on a quarterly basis, shows that of about 180 goals, only about 4% have been completed, including the launch of an economic recovery fund for minority-owned businesses. About 58% of goals are marked as “in progress,” including a violence reduction pilot program that has shown improvements in homicide and shooting rates in the Western District. About one-third are in planning phases, including achieving ADA compliance for all city websites.

A late May poll conducted by Goucher College and commissioned by The Banner found that residents are divided on Scott’s performance in office. Some respondents decried a perceived lack of progress on the mayor’s end, while others said he was doing the best with the difficult challenges he inherited.

Scott said that although transformative change is happening slower than both he and Shorter would like, reconfiguring dozens of outdated city systems the right way means doing it carefully and systematically.

“Having this structure is going to pay off, because what we are building, what Chris is building for us, is a new modern government for the city of Baltimore,” the mayor said.

Staff turnover amid transformation work

One benefit of a city administrator is the role’s distance from politicking — a concern in a city that has had two mayors indicted within a decade of each other, said Grant of the ICMA.

He said that in accordance with the ICMA’s ethics, city administrators should not campaign for their bosses or provide political favors. While city administrators can advise elected officials on the feasibility and logistics of their agendas, the political vision is not theirs.

“Certainly there’s going to be politics in anything related to government to some capacity, but their role is about the operation and organization and making sure that we understand who are the agents for those policies and who’s responsible for making certain that these programs and services are being delivered,” he said.

But while Shorter may be sequestered from electoral politics, he’s not from office politics. The Scott administration has been marked by multiple departures of high-ranking advisers to the mayor, some of whom reported directly to or worked closely with the city administrator.

Many observers thought Shorter would lighten the mayor’s workload, said Henry, who supported the CAO measure as a councilman. “But the reality is, given how Baltimore City government has always worked, the city administrator has taken a lot of work off of the mayor’s chief of staff,” he said.

Mayoral chiefs of staff have traditionally served as both political operatives and agency managers, tasked with managing relationships and implementing their boss’s policies. Now, Henry said, the chief of staff role “seems to focus on the running of the mayor’s office itself, because the city administrator now actually manages most of the agencies.”

Huber, who served as Scott’s chief of staff since his days as City Council president until he resigned last week, managed a handful of departments, including communications and law, as well as the mayor’s relationship with council members and other spheres of influence.

Huber left City Hall to join the government relations team for Johns Hopkins University. He cited burnout and a desire to spend more time with family, saying that he and Shorter strove to make the inaugural relationship of the mayor’s two closest advisers productive.

“Chris and I were and have been very cognizant of that,” he said. “We’re setting the precedent for others to follow, for this administration, and because it’s a charter amendment, for subsequent administrations as well.”

Former deputy mayor Ted Carter resigned from his role last week, after a suspension following an HR investigation into his treatment of employees. He was appointed to the role last year and oversaw 14 agencies with a combined $1 billion budget, including housing, planning and tourism. Shorter both recruited and directly managed Carter.

Two deputy administrators, including Nyagah-Nash have left their positions working for Shorter. Daniel Ramos served as deputy from the office’s creation in 2020 until this winter; he departed to serve as budget director for Harris County, Texas. Jason Hardebeck, who reported to Shorter as Baltimore’s director of broadband and digital equity, left City Hall earlier this summer. Ramos declined to comment and, in an email, Hardebeck said it was an honor to serve the citizens of Baltimore.

Multiple city officials who work closely with or report to Shorter speaking on background for fear of retribution called the departures of Huber, Nyagah-Nash and Ramos a glaring red flag.

“There’s been multiple high level turnovers in that office that included longtime, accomplished professionals,” one said. “They left after being associated with this guy for a few minutes.”

Another official said Shorter has not been making effective use of the broad powers outlined in the charter amendment for the city administrator office. They said Shorter has an inability to make quick decisions, citing perceived tension between him and Scott as sources of frustration.

A third said many inside and outside of City Hall feel the organizational chart is not indicative of how decisions are made and are unsure whether to bring problems to Shorter, Huber or Scott.

Nyagah-Nash pushed back against that characterization, saying Shorter is remarkably engaged and organized. She said she left the administration to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead a startup from its early days, not because of disorder, and would consider returning to City Hall.

“You don’t have to read between the lines between what Chris is telling you, but I’ve found him to be very thoughtful. He’ll pause and think before he gives his opinion,” she said. “He doesn’t have time to be a micromanager.”

Lester Davis, the deputy chief of staff to former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said Shorter is bringing a sharp focus to forging the office. “A large part of that beginning is just learning Baltimore,” he said. “I think he’s done that and now he’s in the stage where he wants to try to work on some of those legacy issues and start tackling them.”

A City Hall aide who works closely with Shorter said they were too nervous to state their glowing opinion of him, who they called a bold thinker with the tough job of making complacent middle managers show results, on the record. “Talking publicly about him is risky,” they said.

Shorter said most of his interactions with staff and city leaders have been very positive. There are many changes needed in the way city government functions, “meaning that in some cases, I want to do things a little different that have been done in the past,” he said, adding that he has spent a long time honing a management style of meaningful engagement.

He stressed that both him and the chief of staff are there to support the mayor.

“Ultimately, it’s the three of us that work to make this city a better city and the government a better performing government. I plan to, just like with Michael, work hand in hand with the next chief of staff to make sure that we are implementing the mayor’s vision,” he said.

Scott has not yet named Huber’s replacement and continues to restructure his leadership team.

His office’s budget jumped to $25 million in fiscal year 2023 from $13 million the year before, mostly to fund five new assistant deputy mayors to support the deputy mayors, as well as a new director of the LGBTQ Affairs office.

About $2 million will fund a new office focused on helping Baltimore compete for federal grants for infrastructure, which could potentially pay off in transformative projects such as the proposed Red Line light rail.

And on Friday, Shorter announced a series of new hires. Simone Johnson will serve as the next deputy city administrator. In October, she’ll oversee three new assistant city administrators, who will oversee operations, labor and technology services.

As his boss nears the halfway point of what he’s described as a foundational first term, Shorter says he is aware that Baltimoreans are more interested in results than organizational charts.

“I don’t suspect that at a community meeting, an average resident will want to spend 30 minutes talking to me about our performance management framework. That’s fair,” he said. “You don’t necessarily want to hear how your cell phone company is measuring their success, right? But ultimately, those things are critical to improved service.”

Baltimore Banner reporter Hallie Miller contributed to this article.


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Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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