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Two years into his term, Bruchey still the maverick mayor

July 30, 1999

A lot of things are likely to come out of Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey's mouth during the course of a 90-minute chat, but apologies are not likely to be one of them.

No, the city didn't break the law by meeting secretly to discuss the University of Maryland Campus. It only violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

No, he didn't lobby Gov. Paris Glendening to locate the campus downtown after he promised not to. He only let the governor know the downtown site was still available, despite a local steering committee's preference that the classroom building be located out of town.

Now working on his third year in office, it's been pointed out that the mayor bears some characteristic resemblances to Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. In the degrees that this is both a compliment and a dig, there are elements of truth. To hear the mayor say something controversial, backpedal briefly, then say it all over again with even more conviction is mindful of a vehicle trying to free itself from a snowbank.

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Once freed of his own minuscule tethers of self restraint, the mayor is off. "Don't get me started" and "I don't want to go there" are usually only brief preludes to cavalcades of getting started and going there with a gusto usually reserved for string-tied Texas preachers.

The mayor has antagonists aplenty these days on whom to focus this fire: The County Commissioners, the newspaper, the campus steering committee. And indeed, his bluntness has cost him some significant political capital this summer.

What early in his term was seen as refreshing, perhaps even quaint, candor is now seen as stubbornness or failure to fit in, quiet down and play the political game the way it is supposed to be played.

Sometimes this is troublesome. The mayor's penchant for conducting city business in secret may be the byproduct of an honest fear of public failure, or an honest belief that publicity will stunt progress. Either way, it's dishonest and for the most part entirely unnecessary. And arguing that it's not illegal, it's only a technical violation of Maryland's state code makes the mayor seem hardheaded, if not just plain silly.

But on a larger scale, the mayor's failure to conform is, to my mind, a positive development - perhaps even admirable. Too many times I've seen men and women "outsiders" elected to office who promise to be different than all the rest. They'll speak their minds no matter what, stick with their convictions and won't give in to politics as usual.

Once sworn in, those ideals usually last for about five seconds.

But Bruchey has, and I swear I mean this as a compliment, held on to his political rawness. True, he's not the easiest person to deal with at times.

But his passion for the city is indisputable. And his energy and enthusiasm for the fight is an asset. After standing up to the prestigious membership of the campus steering committee, who could blame Bruchey for not going quietly into the night?

He should not have to apologize for continuing to lobby the governor to construct college classrooms downtown. In fact, it would almost be dereliction of duty if he didn't. If the mayor won't stand up for downtown, who will?

Nor should he apologize for his public frustrations over dealing with the County Commissioners. Bruchey believes the city bent over backward to reach a limited sewer agreement and is consternated the County Commissioners are dragging their feet on a $37,500 contribution that could get the ball rolling toward a downtown, Smithsonian-affiliated Civil War museum.

Yes, there are questions about the project's viability. But for the potential up-side, isn't it worth $37,500 to find out? What must be mind-boggling to Bruchey, is that historically the Washington County Commissioners have never met a study they didn't like. If the county can pay $100,000 for a fire and rescue study that offered no meaningful solutions and immediately took its place on the shelf along with all the other studies conducted over the years, why not take what amounts to a relatively inexpensive chance on a project that could turn downtown around?

It would also be a pretty inexpensive olive branch. On top of the trouble the city has had getting cooperation from the county on the stadium project, and the county's push to locate the University of Maryland campus out-of-town, Bruchey is getting the understandable impression that commissioners do not believe that Washington County includes the City of Hagerstown.

City and county leaders will stand up at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast and swear on a stack of cold scrambled eggs that relations between the two governments are fine and dandy. Don't believe it for a second.

Relations between the city and county elected officials may be civil, but they are about as warm as a Yukon corpse. For the most part, Bruchey is holding his feelings toward the county in check. But the surface is beginning to bubble.

We've learned in the past two years that the mayor is not a traditional politician. I get the feeling he's not going to be civil for the sake of public perception much longer. If the Commissioners are paying attention, they will extend to the city some meaningful cooperation soon, before our intense mayor bursts out of his self-imposed snowbank.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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