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For commissioner: Brown, Kercheval, Nipps, Swartz, Wivell

October 30, 2002|By

What Gerald Ford was to the nation in the mid-'70s, the current Board of County Commissioners has been to Washington County at the dawn of the 21st century: That being, a healer.

The county had lost confidence in the boards of the '90s, with their sewer debts and their vendor-subsidized trips to the Masters golf tournament, to scratch the surface. The board elected four years ago has restored a sense of dignity and purpose to the office. It reversed the trend of declining school funding as a percentage of the county budget, beefed up its savings account for future emergencies, passed a meaningful land-use plan and has cooperated fully in the University System of Maryland education center efforts downtown.

But lately the county's wheels have wobbled. Hagerstown and Washington County came within one word of signing a progressive and cost-saving sewer agreement before the deal came crashing down. Now, city-county relations are about as low as they've ever been. The county has also turned what was supposed to be a revenue stream for major capital improvements into a politically steered pot of pork funding for whatever special-interest group comes knocking on the door.

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Like those of the past, this board failed at much-needed reforms to the fire and rescue operations and has been inconsistent toward development. Finally, the John Howard fiasco has convinced us that the board is in need of some new blood.

Of the incumbents, we endorse Democrat Paul Swartz and Republican Bill Wivell, the two men who seemed to realize that keeping the amount of a severance payment to Howard secret is both a highly serious breach of public trust and a highly dangerous precedent. Taxpayers have an unconditional right to know how their money is being spent. Incumbents Greg Snook and Bert Iseminger paid that right no respect and that alone is reason to look elsewhere on the ballot.

Swartz also wins our support for being in touch with the public, while resisting the temptation to pander to hot-button issues in the name of votes. He supports construction of a new minor league baseball stadium because he believes it's the best thing to do for the community, despite loud and often nasty opposition. He's also unafraid to put new ideas on the table. His call for a penny increase in the local sales tax to fund education was politically doomed from the beginning, but demonstrated a much-needed willingness to think outside the box.

Wivell continues to serve as the watchdog of the group, and has done the job well. Although the reams of numbers he puts forward to bolster his case are often suspect, he still represents the fiscal-conservative side of the spectrum and is a valuable check-and-balance. To his credit, he does this without lending a thoughtless "no" to every new idea that surfaces in county government.

With the retirement of Commissioner John Schnebly, the board will be in serious need of new leadership and that's why we're endorsing former Hagerstown Community College basketball coach Jim Brown, a Democrat. We do this with some reservation and fingers crossed, hoping Brown realizes there is a fine line between leader and autocrat. Brown has also been maddeningly unspecific about his stands on the issues, seeming to hint that we should elect him, then trust him to do the right thing.

But through a marvelously successful career, Brown has earned the benefit of the doubt. He can point to his teams of winners to prove his leadership skills and to the AARC as an example of his ability to accomplish big projects. The commissioners need a strong hand to stand up to an administration with a penchant for driving the board off the cliff. If he can understand that the behind-the-scenes gruntwork and close-to-the-vest hands that have served him so well must be softened in an elected office, he may be the man.

Republican Jim Kercheval may be the most impressive and thoughtful political newcomer in Washington County since former Hagerstown City Councilman Mark Jameson came from nowhere to toss his hat into the ring more than a decade ago. Not only does Kercheval by miles know more about the office he is seeking than any other challenger, he even appears to know more than an incumbent or two.

And along with understanding the county's problems he has remarkably fresh ideas and thoughts on how to solve them. While other candidates say "We need to manage growth" Kercheval says "We need to manage growth, and here's how."

In a world of work horses and show horses, Republican Dori Nipps is a workhorse extraordinaire. The current school board member is the one you never notice at the public meeting, but she is also the one who has fastidiously done her homework and understands the issue backward and forward. Her inside-out knowledge of the school system would be invaluable to the county board and her tireless volunteer work throughout the community has demonstrated her care for the people of the county whom she would serve.

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