Williams seeks second term
Talbot County Council President Jennifer Williams want to see the county continue moving forward
EASTON — She’s not just a hugger, she’s a bear hugger. Her lilting laugh comes easily — it bursts from her like a surprise and settles into a delighted giggle as she enjoys the incongruity of human nature or pokes fun at herself.
She is not a stuffed-shirt politician.
Focused more on relationships than labels, Talbot County Council President Jennifer Williams is running for a second term on the council. She said she is grateful for all the experiences that have formed her perspective as a public servant.
She is a “very moderate Republican,” Williams said. “I’m not so much concerned about the letter behind the name as the person and what their qualifications are.”
With a varied career background, experiences and an appreciation of the dilemmas faced by the “been heres” and “come heres,” business owners and would-be entrepreneurs, those who pay the taxes and those who benefit from county services, Williams said the county is improving as it becomes more responsive and efficient, an aspiration she voiced four years ago.
But she wants to see it move for ward.
“When I ran four years ago, I wanted to see a county that was more efficient, more effective and more responsive to the citizens, and we have definitely made steps in that direction,” she said. “We started down the path, and I want to continue going down that path. We’ve
We’ve turned some things around that needed to be turned around, but we’re not done.” Jennifer Williams Council President
turned some things around that needed to be turned around, but we’re not done.”
While she believes Talbot County departments have become more customer service-focused, there are other concerns that drive her to continue the work in a second term on the council.
“I want to continue seeing the customer service aspect get better,” Williams said. “I want to see reasonable economic growth. We want to keep our taxes low, but we (as a council) recognize we need a tax increase in order to fund what needs to be funded.”
The council will be working on a ballot initiative to address the chronic funding shortfalls and place before voters a solution to consider in November. The revenue generated by taxes is not enough to fund county services, so the property tax revenue cap needs to be fixed, incumbent council members have said.
“We are putting something on the ballot. We have to work together to come up with a proposal, and only then would we release a proposal. It didn’t quite work out that way,” Price said, alluding to Councilwoman Laura Price’s proposed penny plan. “However, I think the council as a whole will be coming up with a proposal that everyone’s comfortable with.”
An additional budgetary pressure has been Maryland’s “convoluted” school funding formula, Williams said. “Talbot County is the lowest overall per-student funded system in the state. The county contribution per student is the fifth highest in the state. So it’s not the county that’s failing to support the students; it is the state. We have to talk to our state legislators.”
“Unfortunately, we’re penalized because we have valuable real property in the county, much of which is second and third homes. And we have a low student population,” Williams said. “So when the state looks at the value of all the property and divide it on a per pupil basis ... that creates the issue.”
Williams has lived in the county almost 30 years and has a law practice that focuses on real estate settlements and other real estate matters, estate administration, business formation, wills, powers of attorney and other transactional matters.
Williams and three of the current council members are business owners. She said that makes a difference in how they conduct themselves as a council, as well as their hiring decisions at the department level.
“As a business person, you have to be responsive to your customers and your clients, or you’re not going to stay open,” she said. “I think that attitude in a council member helps the citizens because we bring that understanding that government is there for the citizens. We are there to help them, and we need to be responsive to them.”
“That’s the goal — to bring a more business-like atmosphere, and any good business person understands they have to take care of their customers. County government needs to take care of its customers.”
“If the council sees the need to be responsive to citizens — to be efficient, to be effective — and communicates to all county employees that that is going to be the philosophy that we’re all going to have, it goes a long way,” Williams said. “And if a county employee sees council members involved in constituent issues, it lets them know we care.”
“I look at what Gov. Larry Hogan has done at the state level: Maryland is open for business. He made it very clear right off the bat. Phone calls will be returned. You will try to find a way to get to yes,” she said. “And that’s what we’ve tried to do at the county level, as well. How can we get to yes? Even if someone walks into planning and zoning with a project, and it doesn’t meet all of the prerequisites, instead of saying just, ‘No, it doesn’t work,’ let’s sit down and see if we can find a way to make it work. What can we tweak, what can we change? How can we get to yes?”
Williams cited as examples the teamwork and innovation of county staff the council has interviewed and hired while she has been on the council.
“Clearly one of the big successes is combining Economic Development and Tourism. Putting Cassandra (Vanhooser), Ryan (Snow) and Sam (Shoge) together has been far more than any of us anticipated. That trio is just incredible. (Roads Superintendent) Warren Edwards really cares about his customers — and he looks at citizens as customers he’s going to take care of. Brent (Garner) in Permits and Inspections came from the construction trades. He understands what a builder needs, and he’s able to work with them. It’s a huge difference having someone who knows the industry.”
“And when we inter viewed Assistant Planning Officer Miguel Salinas, ... his customer service attitude (was noticed). He had a background not just in planning and zoning, which he had done in both small towns and big cities, but he had also worked in an economic development commission over in northern Virginia. So he saw very clearly the relationship between planning and zoning and economic development,” she said.
“As small business owners (on the council), we appreciate the profit-and-loss side of it. You have to look at your income before you look at your expenditures. We have a finite pot of money available,” Williams said.
“I remember a professor in law school who talked about fundamental government activities, and they’re the ones that have to be funded,” she said. “Maybe not all to the extent that we would like to, but our primary focus needs to be on funding. Some of those activities are the schools, public safety — we want a sheriff’s office, emergency services, our paramedics, our department of corrections.”
Many services are “mandated by the state, they are unfunded mandates, which include the school system, circuit court, orphans court, the state’s attorney’s office, health department, social services, the State Department of Assessments and Taxation, and the list goes on as far as state organizations that the county is mandated to fund,” Williams said.
Like Council Vice President Corey Pack, Williams is concerned about the availability and affordability of workforce housing.
“What I’d like to see is more moderately priced housing built,” Williams said. “But that’s a very difficult one because of land values here. We have so many people who work in this county who commute from Caroline and Dorchester (counties). We have volunteer fire companies who are having a terrible time having people show up when the call comes in because they don’t live in the area. And they’re having trouble getting trucks out because the people aren’t there to fill the trucks.”
“The problem is you have to have density. You’d have to put 25 homes on quarter-acre lots or build townhomes,” she said. “I was talking to one of our sheriff’s deputies who lives in Caroline County who would love to live here, but he doesn’t want to live in a townhouse, and he doesn’t want to live in Easton. He said, ‘I’ve got kids, and I’d like to have a yard and a garden. I don’t need a big yard, but I want a single-family, and I can’t find something I can afford.’”
“It’s kind of depressing that we have so many people who work in the county who can’t afford to live in the county,” Williams said. “But areas of the county don’t have sewer, and without sewer, you don’t want to put in the density that would be needed to have the moderately priced housing. It’s like a Catch-22. Easton is the growth area of the county because of the density that’s allowed, but not everyone wants to live in Easton.” She said senior housing is another big issue.
Part of the catch-22 is that “it’s hard to attract new businesses … (and) workers if you don’t have a place to live. It’s a dilemma.” She admitted she doesn’t know what the answer is. “I think we have to look at other communities, at what works in other places. We have to be willing to work in partnership and try to find ways that work and have a little less resistance to development. I know that’s a hot topic for some people (who think) ‘I’m here, and I don’t want any change now that I’m here.’”
In the council meetings Williams leads, she applies the lessons she’s learned in “a lot of leadership training,” she said.
She greets those who appear before the council with a welcoming smile. “(I learned) if you’re going to be a manager, it’s your job to set the tone. When you walk in in the morning, no matter how crummy you feel in your car, when you walk in that door, you best have a smile on your face, and you best be upbeat because you’re going to set the tone for the entire day for the entire group. You’re in charge, and it’s your job to pump yourself up so that you can pump others up. That’s what you’re there to do.
“I took that to heart and recognize that when people come before the council, many of them are nervous. Many of them don’t feel comfortable. Many of them have never been there before and don’t know what to expect. And so you treat them like a guest in your home. You try to make them feel welcome. You try to make them feel comfortable. I see that as my job, even at a meeting, because they’re walking into our council chambers, and that’s the council’s home. When they walk in there, I want them to feel comfortable and appreciated.”
“My door is very open until you give me a reason to close it,” she said. “I try to respond to citizens within 24 hours.”
She said if she can’t get them the answer or help they need, she contacts someone who can help. “It’s knowing who to call, which department, which department head. I try to let them know that somebody’s working on it. It goes back to that customer service attitude: If I call and ask them to help somebody, it’s very clear that that’s what we expect.”
“The best part about being on the council is the people I’ve met and gotten to know,” Williams said. “Our county staff — they’re unbelievable. They are some of the greatest people you’d ever want to have in your life. They care, they’re dedicated, they truly want to see this county get better and better.”
“We have great people in this county that I’ve met, and a few that have not been as nice — a few,” Williams said. “But overall, the majority of people in this county that I have come across and dealt with are just good people.”
“I think the people who are originally from here, the true locals, are a bit different (from people who came from elsewhere). They really take care of each other. It’s a tradition they grew up with; it’s what they saw their family do. That’s the norm, and that’s what you do,” she said.
Williams grew up in the Kensington area of Montgomery County, the daughter of an attorney and preschool teacher/artist. She attended the Sidwell Friends School, graduating in 1969, “the summer of Woodstock,” she said.
“I almost went (to Woodstock). I worked summers in Ocean City in high school and college, waitressing at Phillips Crab House beginning after my junior year. My parents were crazy — they were totally crazy to let me do that. And I think, what were they thinking?”
“So I had been up at the Atlantic City Pop Festival (early August 1969) and Woodstock was later, and some neighbors asked if I wanted to go, and I looked at who was going to be playing and it was pretty much the same groups that I had seen in Atlantic City, and I figured I can’t afford to take off any more time, so I didn’t go. And then we kept hearing the news reports about how horrendous it was, and
I was like, ‘Oh, why didn’t I go be part of that? I could have been in that traffic jam, I could have been living in that mud,’” she said, laughing.
Williams said she had “no clue” what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I think that’s why I’ve tried so many things,” she said. “I still ask myself that: What do I want to do next?”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, she worked in a number of positions, including telephone sales, loan processing and hotel management.
Her passion for sailing developed during a college sailing course and eventually led her to earn her captain’s license. Her travels took her from the Caribbean to the Great Lakes and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Keys and beyond.
On the wall of Williams’ office is a poster of a Hinckley yacht, “the Rolls Royce of sailboats,” she said as she points to a woman in a bikini at the helm. “There I am. That was many many years ago,” she laughed. “I worked for the Hinckley company for about five years.”
Williams later went to “law school at night and sold boats by day,” she said. “I was a yacht broker — Carvers, Sea Rays, Chris Crafts, Shamrocks. That’s how I got my law degree — selling boats back in the ‘80s” at Harrison Yacht Sales on Kent Island.
“I took flying lessons. I flew solo cross-country in a plane,” Williams said. “I didn’t finish getting my pilot’s license because I ran out of money. But I got to the point that I could fly from the Bay Bridge to Ocean City on my own.”
“I feel really fortunate that I’ve done so many things,” Williams said. “I think it makes you able to relate to people. It’s seldom that I meet someone that we can’t find a common thread, whether it be boats, motorcycles, bees, travel — you can usually find something in common. And I think it makes you, in some ways, a better person because you have a greater appreciation for so many things.”
“I think each thing you try in life you gain something from it,” Williams said. The next thing she’d like to try is raising chickens, she said.
Williams is past president of the Mid-Shore Board of Realtors, and a member of the Maryland State Bar Association and the Talbot County Bar Association. She is a graduate of the state bar association’s Leadership Academy.
She is also a member of the Ethics Commission for the Town of Easton, the Housing Commission of Talbot County, a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity Choptank and Talbot Humane, and a longtime volunteer with the Waterfowl Festival.
Her other memberships include the Talbot County Chamber of Commerce, Talbot County Farm Bureau, Talbot County Watermen’s Association, Miles River Yacht Club, Lower Eastern Shore Beekeepers Association, Wye River Beekeepers Association and Soroptimist International of Talbot County.
Williams taught motorcycle safety at Wor-Wic Community College. She enjoys the outdoors on her Yamaha Royal Star Tour Deluxe.
Williams shares a home with her husband, Bill Cockayne, and “a house full of rescue cats. Everywhere in the house you go, they follow me around talking. We have two that are kind of in comfort care. They’re old guys, but they wake up every morning and tell me they’re hungry.”
Talbot County Council President Jennifer Williams’ favorite spot to talk to friends during the day is the window seat in her law office on Commerce Drive.
In this file photo from March 2017, Talbot County Council President Jennifer Williams speaks at a ribbon cutting for the newly renovated Talbot 9-1-1 center.
PHOTO SUBMITTED BY STEVE MROCZEK In this file photo from February, Talbot County Council President Jennifer Williams, left, and Councilwoman Laura Price praise the Oxford Fire Company during its annual banquet.