City of Takoma Park Mayor Bruce Williams will leave office when his term ends in November. We sat down with Williams to discuss his career in public service—which includes 14 years as a ward councilmember (10 as mayor pro-tempore) and eight years as mayor—and the lessons that he has learned as the longest-serving current member of the COG Board of Directors.
Why did you get involved in local government?
I first became involved in public service when I served as an advocate for someone whose house had been condemned. Through that work, I became involved with affordable housing issues with the city. I also got involved in an effort to change the city code to be more family friendly, particularly in terms of LGBT issues. It got to the point where I was serving on seven different city committees and chairing four of them. People said, “You’re involved in so many issues, it would be easier to run for City Council. You’ll have one umbrella to put everything under.” So that’s what I did!
You’ve been involved with COG since 1993, and have served on the Board since 1995. How has COG changed over the last twenty years?
There’s been an effort by COG over the last two decades to seek greater involvement from the elected and appointed officials who serve on the various committees and to get direction from them as to the priorities of the organization. We’re also working much more closely with the staff.
One of the things that I’ve always said about COG is that I really appreciate the professionalism of the staff. I represent a smaller jurisdiction where I don’t have dedicated staff, but I always felt like COG staff was at my disposal for research or for bouncing off ideas, strategic thinking about things that could be jurisdiction-specific or regional in scope. It was always helpful to know I could call on staff here to serve as a valuable resource for individual elected officials.
A big change that I’ve seen in this area in my 22 years as an elected official has been the open acceptance of LGBT people as full participants and partners in the life of the region and the country. When I was first elected in 1993, I was the first openly gay elected official in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Over the years, I’ve been joined by so many more colleagues… It’s such a difference between 22 years ago and now. There’s so much more of an open acceptance and genuine support for LGBT people as full partners in the life of this region.
What are a few of the projects or COG roles that have shaped your experience?
Working with staff and colleagues, it’s been fascinating to delve into subject areas I didn’t really know about when I started.
One of the things I was involved in from the time I was chair of the board was the creation of the Institute for Regional Excellence – that’s the only certified public manager program with a regional perspective in the country. It’s a collaboration between COG and George Washington University. I think it’s provided a real opportunity for public managers in this area to get to know their colleagues, to get to understand the differences among governments, and really get to step up their game in terms of understanding issues from a regional perspective.
After 9/11, there were all kinds of task forces put together to figure out emergency preparedness from a regional perspective, and in 2002 the Emergency Preparedness Council was created. I’ve served on that body from the beginning. Coordinating with nonprofits, utilities, and universities, and getting all of those folks thinking about the [preparedness] issue has really been eye opening. It’s been good to work with colleagues there.
Through my service on the Chesapeake Bay Committee, I was chosen by Governor O’Malley to be one of six Maryland representatives on the Local Government Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Bay which advises the Executive Council on the Chesapeake Bay Program at the EPA. I’ve gotten to expand my understanding of Chesapeake Bay issues, not just in the COG region, but in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Delaware, and all of Virginia down to the tidewater. It’s been really interesting to shepherd some of those efforts to clean up the bay and relate it to the water in people’s neighborhoods. It’s been helpful to use the knowledge that I gained working on a committee at COG to then take it to the next level and apply it on a larger regional basis.
What are your hopes for the future of metropolitan Washington?
I hope that the trend that I’ve seen in the region continues, which is more active engagement by elected officials in regional, cross-sector conversations. It’s not just understanding that Maryland, the District, and Virginia are each differently structured; it’s also working with the private sector, with non-profits, and with the universities and colleges around the area to get everybody’s input.
COG is the place where you can convene meetings of people that don’t usually talk to one another. It’s a neutral venue where you know that you’re not going to be brought in as fodder for somebody else’s agenda. You have a real voice in what can happen in this region.