By Kim Hoey Stevenson
Special to Delaware Business Times
There were some snacks, some chairs and a table or two in Matthew Meyer’s temporary offices, but not much else. No worries to Meyer, the new New Castle County executive, since he wasn’t there much anyway.
Carrying two phones and a tablet everywhere he went, Meyer, 45, spent as much of the two months between the election and his swearing in Jan. 3, doing a version of what he did before the election — meeting people. He met with everyone from county employees and appointees to students and BINGO players. He and his transition team reviewed 278 resumes, and put in more than 130 hours interviewing candidates.
His job, here at the beginning, is to be a talent recruiter, to make sure he brings the smartest and best people to the county, he said.
Some people think that list of best and brightest begins with him.
“He’s an amazing person,” said Rick Grier-Reynolds, one of Meyer’s former teachers at Wilmington Friends School. Grier-Reynolds taught a course called “Peace, Justice and Social Change,” in which students looked at global problems, then came up with reasons why the problems existed, along with potential solutions. Meyer was a student who took the lessons to heart, said Grier-Reynolds. “He’s really smart. He’s really, really smart. He combines the head and the heart.”
Although Meyer studied to be a lawyer, and has worked with large law firms, his yearning to help others more often than not turned him in different directions. He spent four years teaching middle school math through Teach for America, traveled to Kenya where he founded a company making sandals out of tires, and lived embedded in the U.S. military for a year in Mosul, Iraq, as a volunteer to help build economic opportunity and stability there.
“Most of what really matters in the day-to-day is local,” Meyer said when discussing what attracted him to county government. “Beyond that, I want to find satisfaction in what I do.”
Part of that satisfaction will come, he believes, in building a great team. He’s known for his team-building and communication skills. In fact, it was how he met one of his cabinet members.
Kathleen Jennings, a state prosecutor with 22 years of experience, who served as the Chief Deputy Attorney General, was chosen by Meyer to be the Chief Administrative Officer, the second in command position under him. The two met when Jennings was working in Wilmington as a prosecutor, talking to mothers whose children had been killed in the city. Meyer was volunteering his time to help the mothers of victims organize.
While she was not involved with his campaign at all, she did follow the election.
“The more I read, the more I was impressed,” said Jennings. She’s enjoyed working with him to bring a team together.
“He’s very collaborative and transparent,” she said. “He listens to everybody’s opinions before he forms
Transparency, honesty and efficiency are what Meyer wants to be the hallmarks of his administration. During his campaign he argued against what he saw as a system full of nepotism and cronyism. Ridding the system of such practices in the future is one of his priorities.
That does not mean he will start his tenure with a firing spree, but it does mean he will look at every position to make sure it is necessary and working efficiently.
More than a specific to-do list, Meyer prefers to review and collaborate to develop solid policies that will serve New Castle County long after he is gone.
“I believe in process more than outcome,” said Meyer. “The process needs to be fair, predictable, transparent and inclusive. My responsibility to the citizens of New Castle County is to get the best value for their money.”
He’s met many employees and departments that are doing extraordinary work, he said. Police and paramedics were two departments he pointed to as doing “great things,” for the county.
“I’m very impressed with him personally,” said Marcus Henry, who will stay on with the county but move into the position of General Manager of the Department of Community Services under Meyer. “He brings a fresh perspective, diversity, a wealth of knowledge.”
His real world business background has many people excited. People like Paul McConnell, president of the McConnell Cos., who work in real estate development, said he is “excited” to see what Meyer brings to the table. Meyer is not an entrenched politico, said Grier-Reynolds.
Creating an open, transparent government takes communication, said Meyer. It’s something he is passionate about. Personally, he speaks French, Swahili, Hebrew and “enough Arabic to be dangerous.” Being able to talk with people is incredibly important, he said. It was one of the keys to his successful run for the position that involved running a primary against a well-known 11-year incumbent.
Meyer took a business start-up approach to running his campaign. He intends to continue that approach when in office. Companies start as a new idea, and then get people to buy into that idea to help it grow. Strategy is launched. Some parts work and some parts don’t. The process succeeds when leaders learn from the parts that work so that each time things get better, said Meyer. It’s a snowball effect.
“I think Matt Meyer will be an exceptional county executive,” said Dan Young, a friend who recently had Meyer speak at his Mill Talks event at Theater N in December. “He is an incredible combination of intelligence and common sense.”
Although getting Meyer to talk about his accomplishments is a pretty tough job, he does think his background will be an asset in running county government. He saw people doing incredible and crazy things to survive in Iraq. He also watched heroes stay calm in crisis situations there.
“When you have the perspective of being in war … I think I can stay calm in a budget process,” he said.