Some items curbing my holiday spirit

December 18, 2002

In the last 10 days, I've had fewer than a dozen phone calls from readers and letters-writers about topics of current interest.

No doubt that's because their real "current interest" is the approaching holiday, and whether they'll be ready for it. Given that so many are busy buying gifts, baking and decorating, should I even attempt to write a serious column?

Maybe not, but I'll do it anyway because some recent developments have made it difficult for me to get into a holiday mood. They include the following:

Is it too much to ask that Santa bring the Washington County government a cure for its obsession with secrecy, or some backbone for elected officials who seem okay with being led around by county staff members?


I say that because the still-undisclosed secret settlement to former county department head John Howard continues to make news. Recently county staffers slipped a copy of the deal onto the desks of the county board's new members - including County Commissioner John Munson, who'd sued to have it released.

Then the staff argued that Munson's suit was moot since he'd already gotten what he wanted. As Munson told me Monday, there was no good reason to share the settlement's details in that way, since he wasn't on the board that negotiated the deal.

What he wanted - and still wants - is to tell taxpayers how much of their money was spent. After he gets what he's after, I recommend that he start looking into ways to curb staff members who try to manipulate their bosses.

And speaking of taxpayers' money, what's going on at the Hagerstown Ice & Sports Complex? Last month, the Washington County Sports Foundation revealed that it had lost its seventh executive director in the past five years.

No one will say why, because - surprise - there's an agreement to keep it confidential. One possibility: Roberta Routhen, who chairs the foundation, said the exec's job description has never been clearly outlined, and that they're working to fix that.

With attendance at the rink dropping and the subsidy from the Hagerstown city treasury topping $100,000 a year, isn't it time to figure out why executive directors are spinning out the door faster than an Olympic skater doing a Triple Lutz? Didn't it take less time to win World War II?

Elsewhere of this page is a letter from Commissioner Munson, whose campaign issues included, among other things, the idea the commissioners shouldn't take the $10,000 pay raise passed in the last Maryland General Assembly session.

Munson told me Monday that local state lawmakers have told him that it would be impossible to roll back the commissioners' pay increase.

Really? You can argue, as some have, that the commissioners' jobs have grown into full-time positions, but you cannot convince me that if the delegation wanted to that it couldn't undo that increase.

(You could persuade, me, however, that some delegation members might fear that if they rolled back the commissioners' salaries, taxpayers might ask them to do the same with their own.)

When I mentioned the possibility to Munson that he could donate his raise to charity, he said that was possible, but that he'd still have to pay taxes on his donation.

All right, then, if a salary rollback is impossible, why not introduce a bill to allow public officials to donate a pre-tax portion of their salary back to the general treasury? Then all elected officials would be free to get personally involved in beating the state's deficit. I hope this bill is filed early, to give the many who'll want to be co-sponsors every chance to sign on.

After my recent downtown Hagerstown "gift guide" columns, one reader called to say that merchants should band together to promote their businesses. No details are ready for release yet, but there is a group working to revive the downtown retailers' association.

One of their first tasks, after they get a Web site up and running, should be to get the city government to agree that a day or two after a snowstorm, it will bring in a loader and a dump truck and shovel out the on-street parking spaces.

At the same time, the city could remove the big piles of snow that, as I write this, are still sitting like huge lumps of coal along some downtown curbs. Get 'em outta here, please.

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

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