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Crime issue looms in municipal election

April 18, 1997

Hagerstown Mayor Steve Sager has described the current municipal election contest as a "stealth campaign," but from where I sit, the issue of crime may be sneaking up on the incumbents.

In a candidate forum held this past Wednesday night, mayoral challenger Bob Bruchey tossed aside the question-and-answer format to hold a conversation with a young woman in the auditorium's front row.

He asked the woman if she owned her own home, and she said, "yes." Then Bruchey asked her if she'd buy a home at the corner of Prospect Street and North Avenue. "No," she said.

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No matter how nice the properties are, nobody will buy a house on Prospect Street, said Bruchey, "unless we take care of the No. 1 problem plaguing this area."

In political campaigns, the crime issue is one that almost invites those running to engage in demagoguery. But recent Herald-Mail articles about the city's popularity with out-of-town drug dealers, Sheriff Charles Mades' call for 22 additional detention center employees to deal with an influx of drug suspects and Tri-State area police departments' pleas for more resources to deal with drug-related crime lead me to believe this problem is not campaign hype, but real.

Sager says the council has given Chief Dale Jones everything he's asked for, most recently $1 million in new computers and communications equipment. Sager says the city government has increased the number of officers on the street from 78 to 92 in his 12 years in office. Bruchey says that there's only been one additional officer added in that time, and said there's a need for more.

Sager says he's willing to do that if there's a need, noting that eight years ago he supported a four-cent increase in the property-tax rate to do that, just weeks before the election.

Councilman Lew Metzner, who took council candidate Larry Vaughn to task for proposing what Metzner said were easy answers to the complicated problem of crime, told me after the forum that Chief Jones has been invited to ask for more officers, but hasn't so far.

Vaughn and Bruchey say they hear a different story from the officers who are on the street. The two candidates say that officers tell them when it comes to confronting criminals, police on the street feel outmanned and outgunned.

So who's right? Tough to say, when an election hangs in the balance. However, the city's department has been the subject of studies by outside agencies in the past, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Even if the city gets additional officers through the Maryland governor's so-called "Hot Spots" fund, let everyone agree that it's time for another study of whether manpower and deployment are appropriate for the level of crime today.

For a long time Hagerstown residents kidded themselves that violent crime was a Baltimore/Washington, D.C., problem. But the fog of self-deception appeared to lift somewhat after the body of Michael Eric Mackason Jr. was found on West North Avenue March 23. The 20-year-old New Jersey man, his pockets full of crack cocaine packets, had been shot in the head at close range.

Those not involved in the drug trade aren't likely to be the targets of such crime, but when the bullets start flying, who knows which innocent bystander will get hit? I ask the question not to inflame the situation, but to argue that it's time for an outside evaluation of whether everything possible is being done to keep it under control.

Other highlights from the April 16 forum sponsored by Spring Ward's Government and Politics class include:

  • Bruchey and council candidate Eugene "Buddie" Morris said they would not accept the raises passed by the present council, while council candidate Al Boyer, a veteran of many local boards, said he would, because he doubted that even with a raise, the new council pay of $8,000 wouldn't cover the expense of being councilmember.
  • Despite criticizing Sager's approach to downtown redevelopment, Bruchey did say that Sager has "worked very hard and I thank him for his service."
  • Councilmember Susan Saum-Wicklein said she'd like to pursue the possibility of turning large old hotels and apartment buildings into condominiums to boost the home- ownership rate in the city.
  • Councilman Lew Metzner said that even though there have been odor problems associated with First Urban Fiber, approved before he joined the council, they've been corrected now. "In hindsight I would have voted for it, because it was economic development for the city," he said.
  • Wally McClure, running his second race for council, said the idea of term limits is "redundant," because the voters can already limit the number of terms served by voting incumbents out. McClure said he would limit his own involvement, saying he would serve four years if elected, "but I don't believe city council is something I'm willing to do for the rest of my life."


Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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