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Before you sue, try talking

November 20, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

When I read this past Saturday's story about the Washington County Commissioners threatening to sue the City of Hagerstown over its annexation policy, I got steamed.

I thought, "Well here's this lame-duck board, three of its members departing - one voluntarily - trying at the last possible minute to use a lawsuit to win a dispute it hasn't been able to make headway on for the past two years."

And to top it off, County Attorney Richard Douglas, defender of the still-secret agreement with ex-department head John Howard, advanced the dubious proposition that if this board does file suit, the commissioners who take office next month won't be able to do anything about it.

"The five who are in the driver's seat now make the decision," Douglas said.

As I say, I was steamed, but I calmed down when I remembered that angry emotion and distrust are what have bogged down this effort to get city and county to cooperate. Even Commissioner John Schnebly said this week it may be time to bring in an outside mediator to get the two governments working together.

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So why should you care whether the city and county can agree on an annexation policy? Because if they can't do this, then they'll never be able to work together to save taxpayers money by merging departments or working more closely on economic development.

The present dispute began after city and county sewer officials negotiated a deal to interconnect their systems, an agreement they said would save both governments money.

But then-mayor Bob Bruchey said that before anything was signed, the city wanted a wording change to allow Hagerstown to withhold water and sewer service from any developer who wouldn't agree to annex into the city.

County government said "no," for reasons that weren't clear to me. After all, the commissioners had said there was no need to coerce developers to annex, because Hagerstown's rates are less for in-city properties.

And even if the annexation did occur, the county wouldn't get any less tax money, so why fight the city on this point? Is it, as some members of the council suspect, that the county board doesn't want to lose control of the process?

There is some of that, Schnebly told me this week, but not because of a desire to win a confrontation. Instead, it's a desire to see that things are done in a way that benefits all citizens. Mayor Bruchey's attempt to bring Wal-Mart to Edgewood Drive was flawed, Schnebly said, because the city wasn't asking for enough cash from the developer to upgrade roads there.

Schnebly said that one key problem with the annexation policy - and the one that had the Homebuilders Association of Washington County offering to join in any suit - is that the city is now asking those who receive its services to sign an agreement saying that they will annex, if city boundary ever becomes contiguous. In other words, if the boundary moves out and you home is next to it, you've got to annex.

"I think it creates legal issues in the marketplace," Schnebly said.

In Schnebly's view, the city and county need to address county representation on any board that oversees or negotiates annexations, develop a joint adequate facilities ordinance and make sure zoning maps aren't radically different on both sides of the city-county boundary.

"We need to sit down and talk, but there's been no willingness to sit down and talk about these issues," he said.

Given the lack of progress on this issue, I asked, is it finally time to ask for some outside help?

"Perhaps it is time for a third party to get involved," Schnebly said.

But state officials brought in for a city-county meeting balked at getting in the middle of this, as has the Greater Hagerstown Committee. Perhaps that's because in the past, people like Commissioner Bert Iseminger have strongly resisted outside aid, saying it's the commissioners' job to work this out.

It hasn't happened, though, and a lawsuit between the two governments only guarantees that two sets of taxpayers will be paying the bills. Now, when a new board of commissioners is about to take office, the time is right for someone who has the respect of both sets of elected officials to broker a settlement that won't satisfy everyone completely, but which both sides can live with.

That's how the issue of tip-jar gambling was settled here, under the able leadership of Kathleen Hall, who headed a task force that settled the differences between private clubs and taverns in way that provided millions for local charities.

What does it say about this community when one government sues another? That we have a well-run community that welcomes new businesses and residents or that we're a bunch of quarrelsome hicks who can't work together, even when it's for our own benefit? You decide, then tell elected officials that before they spend your money going to court, they need to try some mediation.

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

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