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Schnebly's exit will be a loss for county

June 09, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

This week's announcement that John Schnebly will not seek re-election is sad news for every citizen looking for knowledgeable leadership on Washington County's Board of Commissioners. The void that will be left when Schnebly goes makes the upcoming race for the county board even more important.

The 52-year-old Democrat said that the increasing demands of his job as president of Keller-Stonebraker Insurance won't give him time to do justice to the elected post in the next term.

Schnebly, who served on Hagerstown City Council prior to being elected commissioner, brought that and his business expertise to the county board, where he worked on important issues that many voters either took little interest in or misunderstood.

The first was a sewer agreement between the city and county governments. Under a plan worked out by both staffs, the systems would be interconnected in one area, saving both governments money and possibly paving the way for future joint ventures.

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Using his rapport with city officials, Schnebly built up the trust needed to get very near to an agreement, only to see it get tangled up in a proposed city policy that would require annexation for sewer service.

Schnebly didn't seem bitter about coming so close to the prize and not getting it, saying that he had faith that the pact would eventually be signed, though perhaps not before the city tests its annexation policy. Knowing how many meetings were involved, on a subject of no interest to the general public, I'm not sure I'd have been able to bite my tongue.

On the issue of school consolidation, Schnebly took an interest in the ideas of Clear Spring resident Harold Phillips, whose analysis indicated that compared to other parts of the state, Washington County has way too many schools. Even worse, Phillips said, was the fact that the many smaller facilities didn't produce the student performance that would have justified the extra expense.

After much prodding, the School Board has agreed to close Maugansville and Conococheague elementary schools and build a new combined facility.

This is an issue in which it's difficult to make parents see that closing "their" school may be a good thing if it allows officials to divert money from building maintenance into the classroom. Schnebly tried, unlike some past county board members, who would have denounced Phillips at the first hint of adverse public opinion.

Speaking about his own philosophy of government, Schnebly said he hoped the voters would not elect those "who define doing a good job at government as doing nothing."

These are the people who are quick to say what they're against and slow to acknowledge that government has legitimate activities it's involved in and services it needs to provide, Schnebly said.

"There are a lot of good activities that go on," he said.

One he said he's lobbied for in the past and one that he continues to believe is important is the redevelopment of the City of Hagerstown.

"It's not in the county's best interest to allow the central part of the city to become a slum," Schnebly said.

One key to revitalizing the city will be trying to persuade the Washington County Hospital management to build its new facility in the city limits, he said.

That's not the only issue the next county board will face. Tuesday the commissioners heard that Community Rescue Service, which cut staff in an economy move, is beginning to miss some calls and run late on others.

In response, Commissioner Bert Iseminger said what has previously been unspeakable, that there might have to be a fire/rescue tax. Washington County Hospital's decision to give up its trauma center status will only make this problem worse, as ambulance companies make more time-consuming transports to metro-area trauma centers.

And then there's economic development, particularly the now-closed base at Fort Ritchie. Once envisioned as an area for high-tech businesses, the citizen board that oversees it - whose members are named by the commissioners - has been embroiled in a long legal battle with one of its few tenants, Role Models Academy. And its latest executive director, a former Proctera & Gamble property manager, left in May after only three months on the job.

Finally, there's government reorganization. Merging functions with Hagerstown and the school system would allow all three to cut costs. But rest assured, getting an agreement on this issue will be about as easy as getting a chicken bone away from a dog.

In almost 30 years at The Herald-Mail, I have seen some awful people on the county board, office-holders who defeated their opponents not by the force of their arguments, but skunk-like, with the sheer unpleasantness of their personalities.

Schnebly is not perfect; I've seen him get testy is some meetings. But he's always pulled himself back from the brink and says now one of the things he's proudest of is the professional manner in which the current board conducted itself.

Schnebly also knows that it is not enough to say you're against something. If you say "no" to one thing, you must say "yes" to something else. Unfortunately, Washington County residents will not be able to say "yes" to another term for John Schnebly.

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

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