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Is privately funded suit in county's best interest?

January 08, 2003

Armed with a whole month's worth of experience, the three new members of Washington County's Board of Commissioners have approved filing a second lawsuit against the City of Hagerstown. In addition to the damage it does to city/county relations, the funding of the suit also raises serious questions about the commissioners' actions.

The lawsuit involves the city's annexation policy, which requires developers who want municipal water and sewer service to agree to annex, when and if their properties become contiguous to the city's boundaries.

The policy has been in dispute for more than a year, with the commissioners arguing that based on past agreements, including grant funding pacts, the city utility is obligated to be a regional provider of sewer service.

City officials argue that if they agree to serve development without annexation, the city will become land-locked and thus be unable to grow.

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A city-county committee formed to negotiate the matter this last Friday held its fourth session, at the end of which Commissioner William Wivell announced the suit had been filed. So much for good-faith negotiations, apparently.

But in a move that avoids the political heat that would have come from spending taxpayers' money on a lawsuit, Wivell said the initial costs have been paid for by the Washington County Home Builders Association.

This raises several important questions, including:

-Can the county commissioners, elected to represent all the citizens, take sides in a lawsuit in which two constituents' interests are in conflict?

- Should the commissioners accept private funds to spare themselves political fallout?

- And finally, if a development group does the county board this favor now, will the commissioners be able to look objectively at future issues involving the home builders?

We believe the city government should look into these questions and ask for ruling by the Washington County Ethics Commission. Perhaps what the commissioners are doing is legally permissible, but it doesn't smell right. And more important, this strong-arm approach only sets the stage for further city-county conflict.

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