Groups explain thinking on Bowers, Byers

October 29, 1998

Two years ago the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce was battling him over a plan to control the county's economic development department. A month ago, a chamber's flyer for a meeting on the possible privatization of sewer service spoke bluntly about the county's past mismanagement of the issue.

Despite all that, however, a chamber survey has given County Commissioner Ron Bowers what he feels is an endorsement for re-election, puzzling some chamber members and capping what may be the greatest political comeback in the county's recent history.

Two years ago, Bowers' political future seemed dim indeed. He'd been the commissioners' president in 1989 when the county took the actions that eventually led to the present sewer debt problems. The hundreds of citizens who came to an April 1996 hearing detailing the rate hikes to come were not in a forgiving mood.

In June of that year, Bowers and fellow Commissioner Jim Wade objected to a chamber plan for an independent economic-development agency, which passed 3-2 despite their opposition. The chamber was less than pleased five months later, when the duo convinced John Shank to switch sides and keep the economic-development agency a strictly government function.


The following February, Bowers and the chamber were at odds again, when Bowers said the business community's fear of unionized labor was keeping the county from attracting high-paying jobs. Fred Teeter, the chamber's executive director, fired back, saying that the county had excluded the business community from economic-development efforts.

"If the members of the chamber want to run the community," Bowers said, "let them run for public office."

The latest tiff with the chamber came Sept. 16, when the chamber held a breakfast meeting to listen to Howard J. Woods Jr., whose firm specializes in privatization of water and sewer systems. The flyer for the event said that "bad political judgment and poor public management got us into this" situation.

That's not the sort of language you use when you're talking about friends. But when a chamber committee surveyed its members to find out which commissioner candidates they felt held views most compatible with the chamber, Bowers turned up as No. 5 of 11 candidates on the list.

Asked about the turnaround, Bowers said that despite disappointing the business community on the economic development issue, he had worked to put a private business group in charge of redeveloping Fort Ritchie, and had helped obtain state money for two new interstate interchanges that will aid business development.

Despite Bowers' delight in what he perceives as an endorsement, Tom DiGirolamo, chairman of the chamber's government affairs committee, said that "the only thing we were trying to do was to get people to list the person whose views were most compatible with the chamber's. It was not that the chamber was going to endorse these people."

Executive director Teeter is drafting a letter to clarify the process, DiGirolamo said.

On Oct. 15, The Herald-Mail printed the Washington County Retired School Administrators endorsement of a group of candidates for school board. The list did not include incumbent B. Marie Byers, who complained that she was not interviewed by the group. And, she said, two whose signatures accompanied the letter said they hadn't seen the text.

Gerald Holmes, an official of the group, said that the decisions were made Sept. 22, and that all members not present were sent a copy of the minutes, which stated that the group would be sending out a letter listing its choices.

Not all candidates were interviewed, Homes said, because the group felt that the views of some, like Byers, were very well known.

"All our actions were by consensus," Holmes said.

My advice to the group, which seems to be an aggregation of sincere, concerned people, is to interview all candidates, circulate any future endorsement letters at meetings, so any objections to the text can be worked out, and have members sign them, so there's no question about who supports what.

And speaking of who supports whom, I don't remember a previous election where there've been so many letters from spouses and children of the candidates. I wonder if they realize that if their wishes come true, and their spouse or parent is elected, they will have to watch someone they love be criticized, sometimes unfairly, for they decisions they make as they attempt to serve the public.

If they knew now what they'll find out later, candidates' relatives might ask the voters to spare their loved one the troubles to come.

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

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