Service director strives to connect community, local government
When the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless announced in early June that they planned to convert a downtown Bethesda office building into an affordable housing complex for homeless residents, Bethesda business leaders were stunned.
"No one had told us, and our concern was that no one knew about it," said Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce President Ginanne Italiano. "We were shocked."
Within a few days, though, members of the chamber, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center were sitting at a table at chamber headquarters on Woodmont Avenue, hashing out their concerns about the project.
The reason was Ken Hartman, executive director of the regional services center.
"Ken knows how to bring people to the table: community members, business leaders and government officials," Italiano said. "He's working hard to make sure we have the right people at the table who can work together."
As executive director of the center, Hartman serves as a link between the Bethesda-Potomac area and County Executive Isiah Leggett, who recommended and eventually approved Hartman for the job.
Hartman is in charge of a staff of four at an office on Edgemoor Lane in downtown Bethesda. In the 18 months since he took the position, county officials say Hartman has done as good a job as any.
"I believe that he's done an excellent job in reaching out to the community and being in front of some challenges," said Leggett spokesman Patrick Lacefield. "He knows the issues, he knows the players and operates with a great level of expertise."
To make matters tricky, Hartman has not been operating under optimal conditions. In the past year his office has had to let go of one full-time staffer, lost $81,000 — 8 percent — from its budget and taken on the challenge of incorporating Rockville and 65,000 of its residents into his service area.
Then there's the ongoing consolidation of the Base Realignment and Closure along Rockville Pike, the forever-looming debate on the White Flint Sector Plan, and the county's Growth Policy.
There are also smaller things, like a traffic island on Hillandale Road in Bethesda, or traffic light timing in Rockville.
Despite all this, Hartman says every day is a joy.
"This is the best job I've ever had," he said. "It's never the same thing twice."
Part of his success, he says, is based on the groups he's reached out to. In the past, regional service directors have focused on the opinions of business leaders and community associations, Hartman said, a course he hoped to change when he took over in February 2008.
"For a lot of people, their Mom's Club or church is their community," he said. "We need to reach out to everyone, not just the traditional community leaders."
In an effort to do so, Hartman started hosting Friday open houses at the center, where residents can stop by for coffee, doughnuts and a chance to grab Hartman's ear for a few minutes. On a recent Friday, residents stopped by to discuss everything from playgrounds to master plans.
"This is a real chance to build that citizen service," he said in a center conference room after the open house. "How do we help you? How can we better serve you?"
Over the next year, Hartman hopes to continue to reach out to non-traditional groups, as well as find more uses for the center itself. Currently, it's mainly used for community meetings and senior citizen activities, but Hartman recently opened it up to rent to for-profit groups as well.
"It doesn't cost the taxpayer any more money, since the building's already here," he said. "My hope is that there isn't a night this building goes dark."