Of candidates, campaigns, sewers and musical lawsuits

September 02, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

As an editorial writer, over the years I've often written that the best way to ensure quality in local government is for incumbents to be regularly challenged in contested races.

Incumbents who run unopposed tend to get the mistaken impression that it's because the people have decided that there's no one wise enough to replace them. The truth is that most challengers know how difficult it is to defeat an incumbent.

Given that, I should have been cheered by the large field of candidates for the Washington County Commission. There are some bright lights, but there are more who either don't have an opinion on some of the top issues in the race, or are afraid to say because they fear that expressing the hard truths will make them unpopular.

Is the school board budget too large? Should there be more sheriff's deputies? How can the county control growth?

In more cases than not, too many hopefuls have opinions that can't be pinned down, or which depend on the mistaken idea that the county can do things like declare a moratorium on development, for no other reason than because it makes some people uncomfortable.


On the one hand, I hate to discourage people from running, but this election has been scheduled for the past four years, which is plenty of time to research issues and form ideas. I'm not going to be so cruel as to pick apart some of these skimpy platforms here, but voters ought to look skeptically at those who have so little to say.

The Herald-Mail has made it easier to do that, by creating a Campaign 2002 page on its Web site, where candidates' stories will be posted for free. Check it out at

If you've read the profiles of the candidates for Washington County Commissioner, you might also want to hear them speak. From now through Sept. 6, WHAG-AM 1410 is doing on-air interviews, on the following schedule:

Tuesday, Sept. 3 - at 4:05 p.m., Dori Nipps; at 4:22 p.m., Millard "Junior" Miller and at 4:42 p.m., Vikki Nelson.

Wednesday, Sept. 4 - at 4:05 p.m., Paul Toothman; at 4:22 p.m., Wally McClure and at 4:42 p.m., Constance Cramer.

Thursday, Sept. 5 - at 4:05 p.m., Herb Hardin; at 4:22 p.m., Greg Snook and at 4:42 p.m., John Munson.

Friday, Sept. 6 - at 4:05 p.m., Steve Palmer; at 4:22 p.m., Ira Kauffman and at 4:42 p.m., Bert Iseminger.

Last week we asked readers to share with us their personal stories of how Sept. 11 changed their lives. So far we've received only two letters, which is not enough for the page we'd hoped to fill.

It occurred to me that many people may not want to remember the time right after the terrorist attacks, when it was not certain what might come next. But there's a difference between avoiding preoccupation with the event and forgetting it. If you have a story to share about how the events of that day affected your life, please send it to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21741.

When I began at The Herald-Mail almost 30 years ago, Hagerstown and Washington County were fighting over sewers, specifically over which would provide sewer service to the Fountain Head area, and under what conditions.

That was resolved after Herald-Mail printed an article which used a formula from Engineering News-Record magazine to calculate that the delay caused by the disagreement had raised the cost of the project by $9 million. This week county officials said the city's delay in signing a sewer pact has cost the county agency $150,000. I don't doubt it, but the city has a strong case to make that it shouldn't just cede control over its utility to developers who don't want their projects to be part of the city.

In a previous column I suggested that the sewer pact issue was at a stalemate, and that a mediator, perhaps someone like business leader Merle Elliott, should be brought in to help out. Commissioner Bert Iseminger rejected the idea, saying that "the public pays us to make those decisions."

Let me suggest that the hard decision some public officials have to make is that they need help. That time is now.

After Washington County Commmissioners Paul Swartz and William Wivell advanced the novel idea that The Herald-Mail should take the Washington County government to court over the commissioners' refusal to reveal the amount paid to a now-retired department head, a song began to run through my brain, one I couldn't quite remember.

And so I turned to the Internet, where a variety of Web sites reminded me that the tune was "Sue Me" from the 1950s Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls."

In the film version, Frank Sinatra's character, inveterate gambler Nathan Detroit, tries to persuade his girlfriend not to leave him by suggesting that she sue him for the years she lost waiting for him to become an honest man.

"Guys and Dolls" is a musical comedy, of course, unlike the current situation with county government, where the money is real and how much the county paid out to this recent retiree is still very much a secret.

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

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