by Kym Byrnes, photography by Nikola Tzenov
When 2020 kicked off, Steve Wantz never could have predicted that by fall the world would have been turned upside down by a global pandemic. In his second term as a county commissioner and serving as the president of the board, Wantz has found himself steering a ship through rough and unpredictable seas. A seasoned leader with 44 years of public safety experience under his belt, Wantz feels confident that working collectively, we’ll survive the storm. “I have lived my life quickly adjusting the sails to proceed through the next storm, through the unknown and the difficult obstacles.”
What are three words you would use to describe 2020 so far? Unexpected — I never thought we would be where we are today. Unpredictable — Everything remains in flux with radical uncertainty. Unprecedented — I never imagined we would be dealing with a public health crisis in my lifetime.
As a county commissioner, what is your role during the global pandemic? What are county-level leaders doing to get us through it? The most important job of an elected official is public safety. Many of my efforts have been focused on ensuring our citizens were safe and treated with respect in an unsettling time where we do not know what the future will hold. Communication is one of our greatest tools, and the team effort by my colleagues and all the elected county officials was and remains instrumental in achieving our goal of keeping everyone up to date with up-to-the-minute information to protect their families and loved ones from this pandemic virus. My job specifically as president of the Carroll County Board of Commissioners was to coordinate and share information with many officials and agencies and constant dialogue with my colleagues who are working very hard to continue to run the government efficiently and effectively. Cautious, sensible decision making has assisted in getting us through the consequences of this crisis so far.
Do you feel that your experience with FEMA and as a firefighter better prepared you for leading through a global pandemic? Yes. Over my 44 years of public safety experience the amount of training I have received has been a tremendous asset. We constantly train on a myriad of situations and emergency preparedness is key, and being proactive is the rule of the day versus being reactive. Much of this training focuses on the emergency aspects of a pandemic or other health crises. I have lived my life quickly adjusting the sails to proceed through the next storm, through the unknown and the difficult obstacles.
What three things are you most proud of in terms of how the county managed to work through the pandemic? First, the collaboration has been incredible between county staff, the Health Department, Carroll Hospital, first responders, and all those who have and continue to serve on the front lines. Second, our citizens should be commended for adhering to the guidelines and restrictions as set forth by Governor Hogan and his team, which has put Carroll and our state in a better place than many surrounding jurisdictions. We are getting through this with the cooperation of common-sense thinking and the simple practices of wearing a mask, social distancing, and handwashing and disinfecting. Third, the mayors and staff of our local municipalities have worked very hard as well. Our towns are an integral part of our county and I appreciate their continued cooperation as we continue to work through this.
What has county government learned from the experience that will change how things might be done in the future? Education is the backbone of our society and utilizing the lessons learned, in the midst of a pandemic, and the exercise of working through these phases, will help us be more prepared for other emergencies or public health crises, which may force us to engage in a rapid manner in the future. I have said many times there was no template or playbook for COVID-19, and the lessons learned will help to form planning for the future. The definition of normal operations has certainly changed, and until we get to the other side of this, we don’t really know what the new normal may look like. We must continue to learn and be open-minded as we move forward.
Counties and municipalities across the country were challenged early in 2020 with COVID-19, and in the midst of getting a grip on that, national events forced towns to focus on diversity, policing practices, and equality — what happened (if anything) at the county level in response to the death of George Floyd and groundswell of Black Lives Matter protests? Our citizens were respectful, and some conducted protests. I applaud them for their efforts in ensuring these were accomplished peacefully. The elected officials and all our law enforcement partners also made it very clear that we would not tolerate racism or hatred in our county. The events occurring in this unprecedented time have offered an opportunity for many to reflect on what is truly important, causing a much greater awareness of many societal issues. I have learned that even as I exist as a person with no prejudice or bias, I need to be open and engaged in understanding the hardships and needs of everyone around us, as we are all different. If national events have taught us anything it is that we must continue to address diversity and step up our education on an ongoing basis.
According to the numbers, Carroll County lacks diversity (just under 4 percent of the population is black and about the same percentage is Hispanic or Latino, according to the census). Do you believe county leadership does all that it could/should in considering minorities? Or, asked another way, do you believe Carroll County is a desirable place for minorities to live/work/play? As evidenced by how events are playing out across our nation, I cannot imagine there are any jurisdictions that can honestly say there isn’t room for improvement in providing a welcoming environment for all minorities, but I do believe Carroll is a great place for everyone to live/work/play, including our many amenities and main street communities. We can always do better, and should always be working for increased inclusivity, and intolerance of bias and prejudice. Diversity is what our country was built on, and I understand how important a diverse community and workforce is, in being productive and working together to solve our problems with different input and ideas. According to the most recent census data, Carroll is growing more racially and ethnically diverse. Carroll is certainly not alone in this lack of diversity in a suburban area. Cultural backgrounds, beliefs and experiences are so important to embrace, to generate ideas which enhance our county, not only today but for the future. We are blessed to have many strong organizations, who I have always supported, who are working on diversity awareness and equality issues, and it is important to give them our support. We have had a great dialogue with some of these groups and have become even more aware of their efforts. As this is playing out nationally, no one can afford to continue to offer the head-in-the-sand mentality. I am always open to the important conversations and needs of any community, to better things for the future concerning diversity issues.
What has surprised you in 2020? I fully understand that this is a frustrating time, as it has changed the daily lives of all of us, but I have been surprised by the level of negativity and the anger that some folks use to engage in their discussions and complaints, and the fact that this way of dealing with others can be considered appropriate by anyone in a civil society. Many parts of society seem to have lost the ability to disagree and still discuss and talk with one another, because they are so polarized. I remain disheartened by the negativity surrounding social media and the way in which this leads to a challenging lack of civility, and the difficulties it presents as we do our best as leaders for all our citizens in Carroll.
You’re now in your second term of serving as a Carroll County commissioner. What are some takeaways (personal or for the county), or lessons learned, since you’ve been in office? I have learned many valuable lessons in both my professional and personal life. It is virtually impossible to make everyone happy, and there are always two sides to every story. Listening is critical and communication is key. Leaders must always be able to adjust and adapt to whatever obstacles in the path of getting the work done. From a county standpoint I continue to be proud of our municipalities and our communities. I learned right out of the gate that government works in a different way, and certainly at a different pace than I was used to in my previous positions. There is a lot to navigate through to make decisions and get things done. We have a wonderful rural community right smack in the middle of the Baltimore Metropolitan Region. Our citizens should be proud.
What drives you to serve (first responder, fire companies, FEMA, county government), and what do you envision for yourself after being a county commissioner? I have always been passionate about helping others wherever and whenever I can, being civic-minded, and giving back to my community. That started in my local community and has expanded to the county and state level. It has been the driving force behind all that I do. I feel that through working with my colleagues, I have made a difference in the lives of our citizens in Carroll County and will continue to work hard up until the last day I am in office. As for what lies ahead, that course is yet to be charted. Life is ever-changing, and we must be prepared to veer in any direction out of turmoil. During the global pandemic, the winds are certainly blowing all our ships around, making our direction and future decisions very fluid.