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Tying up all the loose ends at once: One businessman's ambitious plan

February 18, 2000

J. Michael Nye is a successful local businessman, accustomed to the ways of the business world, where you put together a plan, decide whether it makes sense, and then proceed. The political world, he's finding, is an altogether different animal.

Nye, chairman of Hagerstown's Public Safety Committee, came before a joint session of the Hagerstown City Council and the Washington County Commissioners this past Tuesday with a proposal for a joint city-county public safety commission to deal with a variety of fire, rescue and police problems he and his group feel are bogged down in politics-as-usual.

Rather than asking elected officials to work on them in one bite-sized chunk at a time, a strategy which sometimes (in the case of the fire-rescue service, for example), leads to an endless round of consultant studies and blue-ribbon citizen committees, Nye wants everything done at once.

The plan is ambitious, but no part of it seems unnecessary. The issues he and his group would like addressed include:

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- The court system's impact on the city's budget. According to Nye, because of the way court cases are called, an officer summoned to court will often spend an hour or more waiting for a case that may never be called, because the defendant hasn't shown up or for some other reason. An effort to get the District Court administrator to address this inefficiency - and get officers back out on the street more quickly - has been stymied because the administrator hasn't agreed to a meeting.

- The need for a centralized booking system. Because there are only two holding cells at Hagerstown police headquarters, one of which must be reserved for any females brought in, 10 or more male inmates may be placed in one cell, a dangerous situation that exposes the city to insurance liability. This happens in part because there's no court commissioner working overnight who could set bail quickly, Nigh said.

His solution: Take all those arrested to the sheriff's department, where there's space to handle them, and space for an overnight commissioner to hold hearings.

- Fire and rescue reform. Nye, a member of the Community Rescue Service board, can't claim to be objective on this one, because CRS, which built a new station and equipped it without holding a major fund-raiser first, is in financial trouble.

It serves the poorest parts of the community, areas less likely to kick in on fund drives, or to have residents with insurance that can be billed for service. Looking at a dwindling pool of volunteers, Nye believes paid staffing is the only way for all departments to deal with increasing demands for service.

Some members of the council and the county commissioners who spoke Tuesday feel some sort of incentive system might bring in new volunteers, but training requirements and businesses reluctant to release employees for calls during work time make this a tough nut to crack.

Nye is right when he says that after 30 years of talking about it, a solution will have to be mandated because the players involved have already demonstrated that like the peace talks in Northern Ireland, these negotiations could go on forever.

- Parole and probation. Nye took this one on two years ago, after it came to light that many ex-offenders who'd done their time at the Roxbury Correctional Complex were settling in this community, instead of going back to Baltimore or Prince George's County, where they'd been sentenced.

Patricia Cushwa, who chairs the Maryland Parole Commission, responded by drafting legislation that forces inmates who were sentenced in other jurisdictions (Baltimore, for example) to report to a parole office there once a month. And as of October, she said, the Department of Corrections can put special conditions on inmates who are released.

The real problem, Cushwa said, is out-of-state people sentenced in Maryland. Until those states give their permission, released inmates can't return, she said. The state is trying to address that by becoming part of a new interstate compact that would require states to take back their ex-offenders.

When action was taken to try to deal with this problem in 1998, I wrote a column that essentially celebrated what I felt was a victory. Two years later, it turns out it wasn't a victory, but a forward step that must be matched by many others.

Nye is correct when he says all of this in interrelated. If the city could spend less on police overtime, it might be able to help the beleaguered CRS, which now stands by as a routine matter when police answer domestic dispute calls.

If more police were on the street instead of sitting around in court, fewer crimes might occur. If more ex-offenders went back to the places where they grew up and were sentenced, there'd be more resources to spend on our home-grown offenders.

Seeing those interrelationships is one thing, while getting the county commissioners and the city council to tackle everything at once is something else. In this case, the small step toward progress is the fact that Nye has told the truth about a local problem and proposed a solution that would likely make many unhappy, though it just might solve the problems without another 30 years' worth of discussion.




Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's Opinion Page editor.

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