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Commissioners' driving force plots questionable path

June 14, 1998

Tim Rowland

An addition or two is still likely before the filing deadline, but with Greg Snook's announced campaign for re-election this week, the Washington County Commissioners' race has come largely into focus.

Given the troubles of the past four years, a reasonable guess coming into the election season was that three of the five commissioners would not return to office.

Already, with the retirement of Jim Wade and Lee Downey, two new faces are guaranteed. And the field of challengers has some strong entries. But this campaign could be just as much about the non-elected, sixth man on the commission, County Administrator Rod Shoop.

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Already, County Commissioner Ron Bowers has stated publicly his determination that if he's re-elected "Shoop will not be back."

Bowers has had his hand in some debatable decisions over the years and it may be in his interest to serve up a scapegoat. But he does have a point. And a couple of challengers with no ulterior motives have privately voiced reservations about Shoop's suitability as well.

With no strong leadership at the top, the commissioners have been steered largely to the fancy of Shoop, and some candidates recognize the results haven't been impressive.

Consider these items, which bear Shoop's fingerprints:

With the Washington County Economic Development Commission in a state of flux, local business leaders and the Chamber of Commerce step in and offer to run the operation.

Everyone thinks a deal had been struck until Shoop, refusing to give up any authority, embarrasses and angers the business community by swaying commissioners against the agreement.

Shoop, Snook and personnel director Alan Davis take a well-documented trip to the Masters golf tournament, a junket which is facilitated by the INVESCO financial group.

Later, INVESCO is awarded the county pension contract despite its bid for the service being $130,000 higher than the low bidder.

Shoop leads county employees in 1996 - commissioners included - by receiving nearly $400 in gifts (such as Orioles tickets) from people and companies that want to do business with the county.

Shoop helps ghostwrite a letter from the County Commissioners telling the public that sewer department "revenues are meeting expenses" - at a time when county taxpayers are subsidizing the system to the tune of more than $2.5 million a year.

At Shoop's insistence, the County Commissioners spend tens of thousands of dollars to fight the organization of two unions that have no legal power to strike.

Despite having two of their own county attorneys, the commissioners pay a Baltimore lawyer $225 an hour to keep up a fight that seemingly has less to do with the welfare of the county than it does with Shoop's distaste for people who challenge his opinions.

Before the commissioners stop him, Shoop wants to pay $70,000 a year for a county position titled Director of Golf.

Shoop and Davis have a black man arrested for sitting on an outdoor bench and holding a sign that questions the county's hiring practices. It takes State's Attorney Ken Long to bring the county to its senses and drop the case.

Where it would seem Shoop should be warning the Commissioners away from trouble, he isn't. Pressed by County Commissioner John Shank, what started as a reasonable proposal for a county agricultural museum has exploded into a $2.7 million boondoggle (and yes, despite what you may read or hear on the radio from people who are too close to the project to be objective, it will cost $2.7 million, probably closer to $3 million, and the money will come from tax dollars and it does not as yet have any tenants signed up to occupy the offices).

Bowers says that, behind the back of county Public Works Director Gary Rohrer, county park department and road department workers and equipment have been ordered to do work at the ag complex.

A county worker confirmed Bowers' contention this week, telling me that some repairs on local roads have been delayed because the county's resources were tied up at the ag center. Where is Shoop during all this?

Alone, any one of these might represent a momentary lapse of judgment. Together they represent a pattern of a public servant who has little use for the public and disdains the role of servant.

Shoop is smart, driven, purposeful and demanding. Those are good qualities for a fighter pilot or a baseball coach. But working in public office takes the additional skills of resiliency, pragmatism, consensus building and, in theory at least, forthrightness.

At these, Shoop is lacking. Government isn't supposed to be about what suits one's personal interests, it is about what suits the people's interests. Shoop, for all his talents, has yet to learn this and as a result the county has suffered.

In the coming weeks, County Commissioner candidates will need to address the leadership issues within the administration. The new board must either be strong enough to stand up to Shoop or find someone who is more attuned to public service.

If Shoop remains the controlling factor in county government, it's hard to believe business as usual will change, even if the elected commissioners do.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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