Christopher Shorter is Baltimore’s first city administrator. Photo courtesy of Mayor’s Office.
Christopher Shorter is Baltimore’s first city administrator. Photo courtesy of Mayor’s Office.

On the eve of his inauguration in December 2020, Mayor Brandon Scott announced the appointment of Chris Shorter as Baltimore City Administrator, “responsible for the day-to-day operations of city government.” City Administrator is a position that exists in many large city governments, but it was a first for Baltimore. With an annual base salary of $250,000, Shorter is the second-highest paid city employee, with Police Commissioner Michael Harrison coming in at an annual $275,000.

In February 2021, Shorter arrived here from Austin, where he was one of four assistant city administrators. His job covered environmental and cultural services, health, and lifelong learning. Prior to his time in Austin, he spent ten years in Washington D.C., in positions that included COO of the D.C. Department of Public Works and CEO of the D.C. Department of Health. With a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Pittsburg, Shorter has years of experience in city administration. But in Baltimore, he has taken on considerably more responsibility. The city’s “relentless crime” and “shrinking city revenues” continue to defy the efforts of politicians and administrators alike.

Mr. Shorter has a passion for data, and for improving the internal systems that help Baltimore function. High on his agenda: re-starting the performance evaluation process for all city employees and agencies; reform of the procurement system; and overseeing, along with the Mayor’s Office of Recovery, the evaluation process for American Rescue Plan Act distributions.

All these are vital, and arguably need to occur before any meaningful transformation to Baltimore can happen. It is not high-profile work, and it does not necessarily translate to reduced homicide rates, but he believes it is essential to restoring trust in city government and ultimately getting Baltimore back on its feet.

Much of Shorter’s job takes place in the labyrinthine channels of City Hall, where relationships and territories are long-established and hard-won, and information is often siloed rather than shared. Shorter acknowledges that change will take time, but he is optimistic. He has a four-year contract with Baltimore City, and he’s bought a house in Reservoir Hill. Last month, Baltimore Fishbowl spoke with Mr. Shorter by phone from his office to find out how it looks from where he is sitting.

Baltimore Fishbowl: You started your job just over a year ago. What are some things you’ve learned about Baltimore that are unique to this city?

Christopher Shorter: What I appreciate most is that it is a city of very unique neighborhoods. I love city architecture, and we have so many buildings with tremendous personality. And it’s not just the buildings, obviously. For me, it’s the people, the history, the neighborhood leaders, and what those people want from city government. It’s important to me to get to understand Baltimore neighborhoods, being aware that you can’t just automatically apply the successes, the things that have worked in other cities, and expect the same results.

BFB: How often do you talk to the mayor?

CS: Many times a day. Just before I got on this call with you, I was on a call to him. He knows this city very well. I’ve been able to learn a great deal directly from him, and his enthusiasm and energy are what attracted me to the job.

BFB: What three issues today are taking up the most of your time?

CS: Well, today, it’s wastewater. [On the day of our interview, Maryland State Government took control of the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Essex, acting on the city’s failure to end illegal wastewater discharges into the Patapsco River.] I am in meetings trying to navigate our relationship with the state and to figure out how we come back from years of neglect and mismanagement at the Back River plant. A lot of this is relatively new to me. This first year has been a year of assessment, learning the systems and procedures that determine how we conduct government business here. So much under-investment and neglect have occurred, it’s been pretty stunning.

I also spent time on Baltimore’s vacant housing issue. The mayor just announced a $100 million investment (from ARPA funding) in vacant homes. I am the executive sponsor of a citywide, multiagency task force on this, implementing the recommendations that were made a few weeks ago. Today we met with a subset of the group to understand the software project management systems that will enable us to track progress.

Another meeting concerned reducing hospital wait times in Emergency Medical Service Units. Baltimore is one of ten cities that have been chosen by the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative to collaborate in an effort to reduce wait times in EMS Units. Currently, our ambulances take 55 minutes to offload a patient. The state and national averages are much lower. We are going to work with our hospital partners to find the root causes and possible solutions for this. One is certainly over-reliance on 911. But there are other ways to correct and get this time down.

BFB: What issues would you like to be spending your time on?

CS: I think the things that are going to make the biggest difference in conducting government business are updating and providing digital services online in a user-friendly way. The ARPA dollars are also very exciting and getting those funds out the door is an important part of my job. I like procurement reform and performance management. And lastly, I enjoy advertising this city to new visitors, new employers. We hosted the CIAA, we are talking to people about hosting the (2026) World Cup. Highlighting the charm of Baltimore, I love to do that.

BFB: Where do you think you are having the most impact so far?

CS: It is the internal systems, information coordination, digital service, invoice payments. It’s behind-the-scenes stuff, but it’s critical for a high-functioning government. It is essential to being able to do the basic things, picking up the trash, and recycling litter, for example.

BFB: What is a challenge you didn’t see coming?

CS: I was surprised by the lack of trust in our government on the part of city residents. In my first few weeks here, I said to the mayor, ‘we need a strategic plan.’ Then pretty soon I realized we had some serious work to do before we could start a strategic planning process. We had some stakeholder groups in the city that didn’t even think we could get the basics done! So, it translated into more of an action plan. The mayor published the action plan in December 2021, monitoring quarterly results, highlighting the things we are focused on.

BFB: Where do you think the lack of trust comes from?

CS: I think there’s just a history of us not serving our residents in a way they deserve. There’s been a lot of turnovers, and it is very difficult if you don’t have updated systems for the workforce to get things done. We are focused on the tools that we give them and evaluating performance — recognizing and rewarding great performance and offering help to others.

BFB: There’s also been a lot of corruption in the City government. It feels like many residents have just tuned out.

Well, we’re gonna definitely change that. We are going to be working to bring confidence back to City Hall.

BFB: Last year you mentioned expansion and reform of the procurement system as a priority. Can you explain the importance of the procurement system?

CS: It was one of the first announcements we made. Procurement reform is not something that new mayors, or new executives, normally take on because it permeates the entire government. All our city agencies are impacted by it. Any contract with a nonprofit, with a business, with a vendor — even if we are accepting money from the federal government or granting money to a non-profit — it all goes through our procurement system in some way. It’s also the way vendors get paid. So, if a vendor can’t navigate our system, or it takes 9 or 12 months to get paid, you can imagine how it slows down our government’s operation. It really is one of the primary ways city government is engaging with our business communities.

BFB: What are the issues of reform? What does it look like?

CS: It is evaluating our laws around purchasing services, equipment and supplies, as well as the technology tools that employees and vendors use to conduct business with the city. It involves reforming and assessing how we identify and work with small and minority-owned businesses, and how quickly we can pay them as well. We’ve brought on a third-party vendor, City Initiatives, LLC, an expert in public procurement, who will develop
recommendations over a six-to-eight-month period. They will be talking to every stakeholder community — agencies, employees, vendors — to find out what is not working in their experience. From laws, to people, to structure, to IT. In 6-8 months, they
will present a set of recommendations that we will immediately start to implement. We will be transitioning from assessment to implementation by October/November of this year.

BFB: You started a website called Open Checkbook. Have people been using it? What’s the feedback been?

CS: People have been using it, it gets about 100-200 visits per month. The idea was to create an opportunity for more transparency in city government, to build that trust we spoke about earlier. Every payment made in the city, every financial transaction, you can find on this website. This kind of transparency is what local government needs to provide. It’s another tool for residents.

BFB: It seems like this is inviting irate residents to opine. Is there a way to collect feedback on the site?

CS: Yes, there is, and there will be some of those calls and have been, but there’s also an educational component. For people who spend time on Open Checkbook, it is a picture of how government moves, financially. And while it can create an irate resident, it also creates an informed resident that is able to engage us in our budget process or follow it in a more intelligent way, and that’s what we’re trying to create.

BFB: You have a plan to restart evaluations on city employees.

CS: Yes, which takes us back to the performance management system and attaching agency performance plans to individual appraisals. The city has just under 14,000 employees, so it’s a large project, but there’s such a huge benefit to making sure that employees have a sense of place in the larger vision for our city. It really benefits an organization to have very clear, laid out employee roles, and to tell them on a quarterly or annual basis how they are doing. Baltimore was one of the first cities to have a CitiStat program, to track agency performance on front burner issues. We are going to take that even further.

BFB: Has the evaluation process started?

CS: I would say we have some work to do before we introduce it in a way that will create a city-wide berth. It requires work, certainly. At this time, about a third of our workforce is doing performance appraisals, so we have a long way to go. It will require engagement with our labor leaders first, for putting out guidelines on how appraisals are done, then attaching them to agency performance plans. That all remains to be done, and I think we will see a lot of progress on this during our FY23 budget year.

BFB: Has there been much resistance to it?

CS: We’ll see, I’m gonna stay optimistic, I think employees want to see this happen, so I am going to hope for the best.

BFB: You review the allocation and spending of the American Rescue Plan Act funding. Can you explain the two-tiered system? How does the process work?

CS: Generally, the process is outlined on the ARPA website, and yes, the rubric that we use to evaluate proposals is two-tiered. We are receiving proposals from both our government agencies, and from non-profits. We are the only city that I am aware of that’s actually using some of its recovery dollars to ask community groups to apply, and to release dollars to community-based non-profit organizations. The Recovery office is facilitating the review process, there are internal review teams that’s been evaluating proposals. Ultimately these are the mayor’s decisions, and we are making the best recommendations possible, using a rubric around an equity lens for both government and community-based investments.

BFB: Tell us something we might be surprised to know about you.

CS: I don’t know that you’d be surprised, but I love the outdoors. The last book I read was called “Last Child in the Woods,” about how we are losing the way children engage with the outdoors. Unfortunately, young people are more apt to engage in tablets than to get outside — in nature, in parks. That concerns me. We miss out when our children are not introduced to the natural world.