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Just like old times

commissioners bamboozled by their staff

September 02, 2002|by TIM ROWLAND

Being a registered Independent in a primary election is a little like being a Hindu at a church barbecue. That is, sitting off by myself unable to participate.

But if I were a Republican, one of my county commissioner votes would likely go to Jim Kercheval. Were I a Democrat, I'd probably save a vote for Kurt Redenbo, even though we're acres apart on some land-use issues. Both men are new to politics, young, smart, energetic and filled with sound, fresh ideas.

It's probably for the best that I can't vote for them though, since it would be a real shame if they won.

You would hate to see a couple of talented guys like this earn a seat on the commissioners board, where they would be served by an administrative staff that has a history of taking sound men and making them look like total putzes.

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Four years ago, four of the five commissioners (the exception being Greg Snook, who is as permanent as the meeting-room bench, although not as visionary) were either canned or saw the handwriting on the wall and begged out of the race due partly to revenge for the sewer debt and partly to a series of administrative gaffes, including a highly questionable junket to the Masters golf tournament.

Today, the staff has the incumbent commissioners in hot water again, something that would have seemed impossible as little as six months ago. In a case of unspeakable arrogance/brain-deadedness, the commissioners are spending tax money in secret - paying an undisclosed amount to former EDC chief John Howard who ostensibly retired this spring. They can do this, they argue, because they signed a "confidentiality agreement" that prohibits them from itemizing their expenses. Or in this case, prohibits them from upholding the law, since all public spending must be disclosed.

With this precedent set, there would be nothing to stop the commissioners from buying themselves new cars behind closed doors with our tax money and justifying the secrecy by saying they signed a confidentiality agreement with the auto dealer.

I like this commission, both personally and professionally, but they blew it and it may end up costing one or two their jobs. The public isn't as irked, nor should it be, as it was over the sewer debt of the '90s, but the Howard fiasco has struck a disconcerting chord with voters.

The shame is that while the voters can throw out the commissioners, they cannot throw out the real problem - the county's administration. That bunch is poison. Last term's board of commissioners learned it too late, and this board is in danger of doing the same.

The administrative train wrecks of the '90s have been well-documented, and to its credit, this group of commissioners had done a good job of keeping a lid on its administrative zoo. But when the wheels came off, boy did they fly.

When Howard left his post, he received severance package, which is not at all unusual. What is unusual is that the county administration and Howard signed this agreement of confidentiality which protects Howard from any public disclosure of the details or the amount.

So here's the ridiculous corner the commissioners have allowed themselves to be painted into: If the severance agreement becomes public, they open themselves up to a civil lawsuit brought by Howard. But if they stick to their secrecy, the confidentiality agreement compels them to break the law by failing to disclose how they are spending our tax dollars.

As has happened to past boards, once again these commissioners have been blindsided and roundly embarrassed by their own staff. How must the commissioners feel when the administration floats the most (take your pick) arrogant or stupid excuse of the new millennium: Howard's payout can be kept secret because it's his "income, not his salary."

The problem for the commissioners is that in the eyes of the voters, those words came not out of the mouth of a staff member, but out of the mouths of Snook, Swartz, Schnebly, Iseminger and Wivell. It's worse than guilt by association, it's guilt by compliance.

Even the commissioners who have publically distanced themselves from their staff's actions won't do anything abut it. The commissioners have power over their staff and if they take no action, then the public is indeed correct when it believes Snook & Co. think that money and money are two different things. (Of course the commissioners have some very good staff members at top levels, too, and this is not to paint them with the same brush. All you have to do is walk down the halls of the administration and ask who the bad apples and the good apples are - you'll reach a consensus real, real fast.)

Are voters mad enough to make changes? Maybe, although it's more likely in the general than the primary. If a race between an incumbent and a challenger were going to be close to begin with, this is a scale-tipper. I'm guessing at least one commissioner will lose his job over it.

You almost hate to see decent guys like Kercheval and Redenbo take advantage of the situation, figuring that if they win they will be roughly planed in the same old administrative mill that has turned out such rickety furniture over the past eight years and shows no sign of change.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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