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Commissioners take office

December 04, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Just moments after members of the new board of Washington County Commissioners were sworn in Tuesday, Washington County Circuit Judge Frederick C. Wright urged them to govern in the spirit of cooperation instead of blame and not to exclude the City of Hagerstown or its residents when considering the interests of the county.

Wright officiated at the swearing-in ceremony at the Washington County Courthouse for incumbent Commissioners Gregory I. Snook and William J. Wivell and newcomers James F. Kercheval, John C. Munson and Doris J. Nipps.

His words came a day after the outgoing board of commissioners filed suit against the city for $2.5 million over a sewer service agreement the county alleges was breached by the city.

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Wright did not mention Monday's lawsuit directly, but he described Washington County as a "self-gratifying" and "blame someone else, take you to court" community.

He said others in the community might be encouraged to sue their neighbors if they see their leaders doing it, and that such a trend may already be happening in Washington County.

Washington County, with the 10th largest population in the state, ranks sixth in criminal caseloads and seventh in juvenile and civil cases, behind only metropolitan areas that include the City of Baltimore and Baltimore, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, he said.

"Just maybe the attitude of the leaders may affect the attitude of the people," Wright said. "The tone of government relationships may affect the tone of personal relationships."

Nipps said Wright was encouraging the county to be good neighbors and that she supports not moving forward with the lawsuit, if possible.

"Let's try to be good neighbors here," she said. "The group that gets hurt by this is the entire county."

Munson said he didn't expect Wright's statements but that he wasn't shocked by them either.

"I agree with him. We're going to try to be good neighbors," Munson said. "There's no sense in haggling over this."

Former Commissioners John Schnebly and Paul Swartz said Tuesday night they had repeatedly tried to work out an agreement with the city.

"I guess what I would say in terms of a rebuttal is that we have tried in a good faith way," Schnebly said.

"The group said it's time for action," Swartz said.

In the suit, the county asks that a judge order the city to abide by the terms of a 2001 amendment to the sewer agreement between the city and the county. The amendment addresses flows under a proposed connection of the city's and county's systems.

The county claims it has lost money because the city has not signed the amendment that would join the systems.

The connection would save both governments $1.5 million over 10 years through the consolidation of services, an increase in customers and other measures, city and county officials have said.

Approval of the amendment has been on hold because some city and county officials disagree on whether wording in the agreement should be changed so that the city can require customers who live outside the city to annex their properties to the city to receive new water and sewer service connections, officials have said.

The agreement contains a phrase that the city "shall" accept new sewer customers from areas outside the city. City officials have argued that the word "shall" means the city can't refuse service to properties outside city limits.

City officials have said the word "shall" must be changed to "may" in the sewer agreement to make the agreement annexation neutral.

Wivell said only time will tell whether the county and city will be able to settle the lawsuit out of court, but that the suit may have been necessary to push the sewer agreement along regardless of whether the case goes to trial.

"I didn't disagree with anything he said," Wivell said of Wright's comments. "I think we should be able to work these agreements out. Hopefully, we can bring resolution without going to trial."

Wright said he hoped the new county board will act in the interests of all of Washington County.

"We can't exclude Hagerstown from the interests of Washington County," Wright said. "All of us who live and work in Hagerstown and outside are your constituents. Act for the community interests of all and not the few."

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