A Long-Time Insider Reflects After Almost 40 Years in Montgomery County Government
Recently retired county CAO Tim Firestine recalls experiences and lessons after decades in top positions
For most of the past three decades, Tim Firestine has been one of the most influential figures in county government—as finance director under county executives Neal Potter and Doug Duncan, and then, for the past 12 years, second in command to County Executive Ike Leggett as chief administrative officer.
This past Monday, Firestine, who resides in Darnestown with his wife and three sons, retired after handing off the county’s highest paid position to Andrew Kleine. As he prepared to leave office last week, Firestine, 63, took time out for an extended conversation on his career.
While it ranks second in the county government hierarchy, many county residents are unfamiliar with the role of the chief administrative officer [CAO]. Could you briefly describe what it has entailed?
Ike [Leggett] made it clear from the start that my responsibility would be to run day-to-day operations. We have 21 [department] directors who are appointed. They all reported directly to me. I have three assistant CAOs who help me manage the government. In my day-to-day, we would set up work programs and performance plans for each of the departments. At the end of the year, we would meet with them and go through their performance plans to hold [the department directors] accountable. And then we’d meet with the county executive, based on what they accomplished, to see whether it met what he was looking for.
My style [has been] to hire good people and let them run their departments — unless you’re a department where things aren’t going quite right, and then I’ll bring you in here on a regular basis, and we’ll keep working through it.
You spent almost 40 years in Montgomery County government working for five different county executives — a large majority of those years as either chief administrative officer or in another high-ranking post, director of finance. What’s your secret to bureaucratic longevity?
I’ve tried to stay out of the political aspects of it. I’ve never contributed to a campaign; I’ve never worked in a campaign for county executive. And I think being in the subject area I was in—because it’s complicated, it’s complex and people don’t know a lot about it—helps with longevity… The fact that I know a lot about the county finances, more than other people, that’s probably the advantage I’ve had. You combine that with working hard, and helping people get what they want to get as elected officials.
You became finance director after Neal Potter was elected county executive in 1990 and remained in that post for 12 years after Doug Duncan succeeded him in 1994. It’s an understatement that Potter and Duncan were two very different personalities with very different management styles. How difficult was it for you to adapt?
When Neal came in and I got appointed director of finance, the big issue for us was the resource recovery facility [which opened in Dickerson in 1995]. So we created a whole new financing mechanism…to fund a $400 million facility. Neal being a legislator — and I’ve seen this with all the folks who are legislators who have come in — they don’t have the decision-making capability that someone who’s been an executive does. And, so, Neal would always keep remaking decisions. On the [recovery facility], before I issued the bonds, I wanted to make sure he was on board. So, I made him sign a memo saying, “OK, I’m there.” If I hadn’t done that, I’m afraid that halfway through the financing, he would have said, “Well, maybe we ought to look at something else.”
We had adjusted to Neal’s style, [and] Doug came in. We had a meeting, came back to him with an issue—I can’t remember what the issue was—and made a different recommendation. And he got really angry and said, “You just recommended the other day that I do X. Now you’re back with a different recommendation. Once you make a recommendation, and I accept it, that’s what we’re going to do — don’t bring it back to me.” And we’re like ‘Holy s**t, it’s a lot different than Neal Potter.”
While you said earlier you have worked to stay out of politics, you were pulled into it during the 2014 campaign, when Ike Leggett sought re-election and Doug Duncan decided to run against him. Ike at times criticized the handling of fiscal policy during the Duncan administration, and Doug suggested Ike take the matter up with his chief administrative officer—you—as director of finance during the Duncan administration. Did you feel caught in the middle?
Doug and I got along really well, but at the very end of his administration, when I got the appointment to be CAO, Doug was really upset that Bruce [Romer] wasn’t reappointed. (Editor’s note: Romer, was chief administrative officer throughout Duncan’s three terms in office.) Ike asked me whether I would accept it; it was two or three days before he made the announcement. And Ike told me not to tell anybody. And I didn’t tell Doug or Bruce that he was going to make me CAO.
Ike makes the announcement that I’m the CAO. I came back [to the County Executive Office Building], I ran into Doug getting off the elevator—and he about took my head off. To this day, he has never forgiven me for not telling him. He took another shot at me again just a couple of weeks ago on the economic development issue—with Peter Bang, where he said it’s basically my fault and pinned it on me. I think he was looking for any opportunity to take a shot at me, which is unfortunate. But that was Doug. If he didn’t like you for some reason, he has no trouble taking a shot. (Editor’s note: Bang, former chief operating officer of the now-defunct Department of Economic Development, pled guilty last month to embezzling $6.7 million in county funds over a six-year period.)