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For commissioner:

September 04, 2002

The task of endorsing candidates for the Sept. 10 primary in the Washington County Commissioners' race was made more difficult this year because of the current board's unfortunate decision to keep secret the amount of money they paid to a recent retiree - after they'd already put the man on paid leave for months!

It's behavior that can't be excused, and yet if we toss out all the incumbents who participated in that, most of whom have apoligized for their role in the matter, we would have to ignore the progress this board has made.

The current board has started to pay down the county's sewer debt. The board also updated the county's Comprehensive Plan and took the first serious steps toward cooperation on a range of projects with the City of Hagerstown, including a pledge to help with site preparations for the new University System of Maryland campus in downtown.

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And though progress has been slow, this board has moved toward a new funding system for the county's fire and rescue companies. What they did in secret was wrong, but what they've done in open session has provided some balance to that ill-considered act.

Incumbent William Wivell gets our endorsement, because even though he's a fiscal watchdog, he's doesn't have that unthinking "no new taxes" approach to government. He noted recently that preserving the rural way of life here will cost some money. Now he needs to say where the cash will come from.

Gregory Snook, the current board president, is seeking his fourth term and has kept the board on an even keel for the past four years. In addition, the sewer debt is being paid down and county reserves are up, at a time when state government is likely to reduce the amount of aid coming here.

His tendency to duck controversy and minimize problems is bothersome, as in the case of fire and rescue funding. He opposes a fire tax, because that would bring greater accountability to the companies. Of course it would, but it would also enable some companies to pay for personnel to supplement an increasingly scarce pool of volunteers.

If Snook is commissioners' president again, he needs to use some of his political capital to provide some stronger leadership on the issues.

Among the newcomers in the Republican primary, we favor those who've already shown their ability to do research, starting with Harold "Hal" Phillips, who discovered that although Washington County runs more schools per-capita than many systems in the state, the smaller schools were not performing as many would expect. A former state economic development official, he should be able to help get the local economic development effort back on track.

Doris Nipps is a member of the Washington County School Board who knows how to look at a budget and takes stands based on research rather than emotion. She tends to regard the press as a songbird regards a cat - as something to be avoided rather than as a way to communicate with constituents. On balance, however, we'd prefer a wary candidate to one who doesn't know the issues.

James Kercheval, a well-known local restaurant owner, has been honored by the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce for his contributions to the community. He realizes that growth can't be stopped, but must be managed and that finally, the fiscal realities are forcing city and county to work together to consolidate services.

We're not endorsing Stephen Palmer, but the first-time candidate shows some evidence he's thought about the issues, recommending that schools partner with high-tech industries and that the county could benefit from a better tourism program, keyed by a convention center. The next board should find a spot for him on one of the county's boards and commissions.

In the Democratic primary, we're backing two incumbents and two newcomers.

Bert Iseminger, a long-time member of the county's planning commission, has done a lot of work on the update of the Comprehensive Plan, on the proposed sewer pact with the City of Hagerstown and on fire/rescue issues. To his credit, he's had the courage to say that more cash will be needed for the county's fire/rescue companies and that it might have to come from tax revenues.

Paul Swartz, despite his recent flip-flop over whether he would resign over the matter of the secret agreement that bars the public from knowing how much a county department head got when he retired, has worked hard in his first term.

He's a member of numerous boards and commissions and says what he thinks, even though he sometimes ends up apologizing for it afterwards. His plan to seek a sales tax increase and use part of it to supplement law enforcement and education costs and to reduce property taxes didn't get much support last time around, but his persistence might pay off in a tough budget year when state lawmakers will have to tell the counties "no" on so many other items.

Kurt Redenbo is marketing director of the National Park Foundation and as a result understands the value of preserving open space and having controlled, orderly growth. It's the issue that's gotten the most citizen response so far and Redenbo is a strong voice who won't let it get lost in the crush of other county business.

Finally, there is Jim Brown, the former Hagerstown Community College coach who helped raise the cash to build HCC's new Athletic Recreation and Community Center. Brown is a community leader who knows how to build consensus, but his reluctance to speak out on issues has been frustrating. If he makes it through the primary, he needs to say a whole lot more.

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