The Maryland Board of Public Works approves billions of dollars in contracts every year. Members of the three-person panel decide which projects advance, which go back for retooling, and which company gets the job.
From the moment the governor, comptroller and treasurer stride into the room at the beginning of every meeting, they are the focus of attention.
Their questions command immediate answers. Their votes are the source of the drama. Their jokes get big laughs, even when they’re only so-so funny.
But there’s a fourth person who looms large at the twice-monthly BPW meetings. She sits to the side, with the other aides, advisers and cabinet members. She is unseen by the government geeks watching online, but her presence in the room is unmistakable.
For the last 20 years, that person — the executive secretary of the Board of Public Works — has been Sheila C. McDonald.
Through three elected comptrollers, four governors and three treasurers, McDonald has served as guide to the proceedings, able to summon the right expert when a question arises and to shoo chatty members of the audience out into the hall.
She manages to bring a commanding presence that never overshadows the principals — or the work at hand.
“She runs the show,” said state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), who has worked with McDonald for 17 years.
“She’s someone that everyone respects. When the questions come up, the heads all turn to Sheila, which is really testimony to both her knowledge and her credibility.”
McDonald is retiring at the end of the month, meaning she has just one BPW meeting left.
Former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) called her “professional, diligent and true.”
“Sheila has been a pillar of integrity, experience, and service to the people of Maryland,” he said in an email. “Few in State government have ever rivaled her years of experience or her dedication to duty.”
Given her tenure, McDonald knows the procurement process and the top officials in every agency across the sprawling state bureaucracy like the back of her hand.
“The Board of Public Works is a microcosm of the state itself and that’s what I like about it,” she said in an interview. “Because there are so many different areas and fields. … I like being involved in all of these things, seeing how everything fits together.”
Kopp said that when she first became treasurer, she scheduled time with McDonald before every meeting.
“I had to know quickly how things work and what the issues were,” she said. “What the background was, what the back stories were.”
Kopp, added that McDonald has been a mentor to women in government “in her own quiet and extremely competent way.”
An attorney, McDonald’s 30-year government career began when she was hired to serve as assistant attorney general under Joseph Curran (D), tasked to the Department of Economic and Employment Development.
Seven years later she became general counsel to the Board of Public Works. In 1999, she became executive secretary.
“My favorite show is ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway,” she said. “And it’s been a privilege to be in the room where it happens,” reprising one of the show’s signature lines.
“I’m not the decision-maker. I’m not the policymaker. But we set the record. And that’s what’s important, is setting the record, having the record in front of the board so the decision makers have a record on which to make their decisions.”
Once the pieces are in place and the information is on the table, McDonald said, “then I can sit back and see what they do with it.”
She served with Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein, the legendary tax-collector and self-styled fiscal watchdog whose 40-year run will likely not be repeated. She’s run meetings for governors of both parties, including the wonky Parris N. Glendening (D) and incumbent Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan (R), who seems to relish wrapping things up in no more than an hour.
John Gontrum, Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot’s liaison to the BPW, was selected unanimously by the board in November to take over for McDonald in January. He has been shadowing her ever since.
“She is taking a significant interest in helping her successor get into the role without dominating in any way,” Kopp said.