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Gaming Commission's executive: County's choice our good fortune

June 11, 1999

What were the odds? Five years ago Washington County lawmakers had just passed the most progressive, most significant piece of local legislation this decade, a bill that would account for millions on millions of gambling dollars and channel a significant share to charity.

With so much money, so many interests and so many competing hands reaching out for help, what were the chances the County Commissioners could scan their ranks and pick the perfect person for the job, a former faceless secretary in the State's Attorney's and housing offices who would turn out to be smart enough, tough enough and gutsy enough to morph this stack of legalistic paperwork into a practical method for transferring cash from gambling houses to the people in need of food, shelter, emergency assistance and medical care, along with artistic, cultural and athletic causes all for the betterment of county life?

That Kathy Schilens succeeded so brilliantly in this impossible post says many things about her personally and about the quality of frequently derided government bureaucrats in general.

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It's seldom said, but government works as well as it does because of the bureaucrats, not in spite of them. From the number-cruncher cubicles in the county building and permits offices to policy decisions in the confines of city administrators to, yes, even the MVA, government has far more smart, caring employees than one might suspect.

Schilens, who is leaving as director of the County Gaming Commission this month to move closer to her family in Ohio, came out of nowhere to take one of the most visible, politically charged positions in the entire system.

How she was able to succeed, I have no idea. A million things could have gone wrong when the Gaming Commission was in its infancy.

Clubs might have convinced elected officials to weaken the rules. Belligerent challengers to the new law might have caused the Gaming Commission to back down. Money might have begun to filter to the wrong parties.

Schilens prevented all that from happening. She stood firm in support of a law that was almost universally hated by the gambling interests. She took violators to court and taught them early on they would have to take the law seriously. The familiar old club ways of winks and backroom deals and back scratches didn't play in the Gaming Commission.

When the gambling revenues were distributed, Schilens and the Gaming Commissioners made certain only deserving groups that fit the legal guidelines were successful.

Sometimes that led to actions that at the time were hard to understand, such as the failure of the Western Maryland Blues Fest to win a grant because the organization technically didn't qualify under charitable guidelines.

But because the commission stuck fast to the rules, it's had the high ground when, for example, a private club laughably wanted some of the gambling money it paid to the gaming fund back, in the form of a charitable grant.

These are the sort of end-runs for which the private clubs are famous. Already clubs are pressuring commissioners to change the rules defining gross profits so they can keep even more of the tip jar money. If successful, that would cost charities and fire and rescue companies about $300,000 a year.

Also, the clubs want to change the eligibility requirements for Gaming Commission grants to allow private-club affiliate groups to apply for money that is supposed to be going to charity and fire and rescue services.

When tip jar gambling was legalized in the '70s, all of the profits were supposed to be given to worthy causes. But the clubs only gave away 8 percent and for 20 years kept the rest for themselves. Under the new law they still keep 80 percent of the profit - yet they continue to insist that's not enough.

Schilens and the Gaming Commissioners have stood firm against the clubs' attempts to circumvent the law, a positive trend that will likely continue.

Schilens' replacement, States Attorney's office manager Vanessa Hines, is by all accounts smart and able and is a good bet to again prove the quality of local government staff.

The Gaming Commissioners themselves, chaired by Lou Thomas, receive high praise from Schilens as savvy, tough and fair - they'll be able to buffer Hines from the political firefights while she's learning the ropes.

Millions of dollars have, and will continue, to flow into charities, and fire and rescue companies as a result of the 1995 tip jar gambling law. Schilens, with the support of strong people such as former Gaming Commissioners Stu Mullendore, Paul Muldowney and Sue Tuckwell, took the infant office, gave it teeth and taught it to walk.

Unlike career elected officials, Schilens saw the opportunity to serve the public, did the job, and now wishes to move on to other challenges.

Through her work, Schilens has touched a large percentage of the people of Washington County, though they probably don't know her name. She is what public service is all about and her presence in this county will be greatly missed.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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