From high perch, Nigh sees city's issues

March 21, 2001

From high perch, Nigh sees city's issues

Getting to Penny Nigh's North Mulberry Street home means climbing a steep set of stairs to a porch that sits high above the street like an observation post, giving her a clear view of everything that goes on, including some things that she'd rather not see.

Like what? Like a Hagerstown neighborhood that has changed a lot in the more than 30 years she and her husband Bob have lived here. Owner-occupied homes have been turned into rental properties, drawing tenants involved in the drug trade. Her call for anti-crime action apparently hit home with many city residents, giving her top spot in the recent Democratic city council primary.

That finish wasn't a fluke, although with an 11 percent turnout, it's no guarantee of victory in the May 15 general election, either. Nigh says the primary win came because of two things - her family's union roots and a crew of supporters that went door-to-door to spread her message.


"I was born and raised in a union family," she said. Her dad, Bob Poole, worked at Pangborn Corporation where he welded together the big black wood stove that sits in Nigh's living room. Her brother, Gary Swartz, is the former president of Local 842 of the United Auto Workers.

Combine that with a door-to-door crew of family and friends and you've got a primary victory. Nigh seems a little surprised, a little apprehensive - she's never spoken up at a city council meeting - and knows the tough questions are just starting.

Where would you get the resources to pay for the additional police manpower she says is needed?

"Don't ask me where that's going to come from," she said, adding that it will take "all five of us" on the council to look at the budget and see what's possible.

Given that you and others folks concerned about crime have had their differences with some of the incumbents, will you be able to work with them if you're elected or will there be problems?

"I don't think so. If I can respect their views, then I think that they would respect mine," she said.

Nigh doesn't even want to single out the councilmembers she's disagreed with, even though she bristles at the memory of one conversation she had with a member who told her he didn't believe things were that bad.

"The next week we had a ride-by shooting on Mulberry Street," Nigh said.

Nigh noted that in my column last year on an evening spent on East Franklin Street with a group from the Neighborhoods 1st organization, I said it was difficult to tell if the crowds of people walking by were looking for drugs or just hanging out. Spend enough time looking, Nigh said, and you'll see that the drug trade is real and not just a "perception problem."

Nigh says she's watched a carload of people pull up to a building and park while one person goes inside. A while later, the person came out again and "he was brazen enough to show the others what he'd got."

Other neighbors have seen drugs done openly on porches, in backyards and the like, but Nigh said that because the city police are overburdened with drug activity in other parts of town, they can't always respond quickly.

In a recent meeting of the HotSpots crime-prevention initiative, Nigh said police told the group that for every dealer they arrest, three arrive to take his place.

At least one more drug squad is needed and possibly another drug task force, made up of officers from every police agency in the area, she said.

Nigh knows changing minds won't be easy. Some citizens, she said, are not aware of the extent of the drug problem in Hagerstown. Once they've been convinced, then they've got to be willing to go, as she did, to council meetings, learn what goes on and lobby for what the city needs.

Given your lack of political experience, can you really lead such a movement?

"My father said that if you can run American Little League (she's a former president), then you can do anything. If you have the right blend of different personalities on the council, you can get things done," she said.

Nigh has already figured out that getting in a public fight with people she may have to work with later isn't a wise thing to do. Nor is she campaigning for a tax increase, though she knows that adding police won't be cheap. She is frank about the choice she's made not to abandon the street she's lived on for more than half her life to a bunch of people who are only passing through.

If you haven't seen Nigh or the other candidates in action, there's one forum scheduled at Valley Mall office of Hagerstown Community College on Friday, May 11 at 7 p.m. The city's general election is Tuesday, May 15.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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