Consolidation is a good idea - so why is the delegation supporting it?

April 27, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

Anytime a public official in Washington County suggests anything even remotely progressive, I get suspicious.

It's just not their way, normally.

So what's going on when majorities on both the Board of County Commissioners and the Legislative Delegation wish to engage in something so revolutionary as one-county government?

The delegation's endorsement is especially curious, since the only time they've gotten aggressive over anything in recent years involved cases of party politics.

Oh yes, party politics. Could it be that politics has just an teensy bit to do the commissioners/delegation's enthusiasm for the project?


Republicans control the County Commissioner board 5-0. Republicans control the delegation 7-1. Only on the Hagerstown City Council do Democrats have a majority, 4-1. Further, the only Democrat on the delegation holds the seat that represents the city.

Having fumigated Democrats from every nook and crevice of the county, could it be the GOP is now turning its sights on the city? Well, probably not, although it makes for a crackling good conspiracy theory.

Under the cloak of greater efficiency, this proposal surfaced at a post-legislative breakfast on Tuesday and Amen-ed by County Commissioners the next day.

Truth be told, consolidation of bureaucracies as outlined recently by CHIEF's Dick Phoebus is an excellent idea, even if the odds of it achieving reality are extreme.

But sad to say, the concept of consolidation is entirely out-of-character for the delegation. When has the delegation of the last decade ever - ever - proactively engaged in any major reform initiative? Any minor reform initiative? Any initiative whatsoever that's any more radical than a law allowing fire trucks to back up with their lights on?

This consolidation deal is so inconsistent with this timid little team of back benchers (who only bare their fangs in matters of their own re-elections) that it does seem something else is going on.

Perhaps the county is egging them on. Consider that the County Commissioners and developers are sharing the costs of a lawsuit against the city over annexation policy.

The county has gotten pretty used to steamrollering the city, as it's done on everything from hotel taxes to economic development, and it probably assumed it could strong-arm the city again.

Obviously it didn't count on some tough city birds like Linn Hendershot and Kristen Aleshire who have stuck strongly to this principle: Developers ought to pay the going rate for sewer and water services just like everything else, which is what this annexation fight boils down to.

The city is a thorn to county control, and truth be told I'd say it's not the bureaucracies the county is so interested in consolidating, but the political leadership.

In a countywide vote, city residents become a minority, easily overcome by county candidates. That would give the county control over a city that history proves it cares nothing about.

If the county sees everything through control-colored glasses, the delegation sees everything through political-colored glasses. The county and the delegation have had their tiffs, but politics is politics and if you get the chance to pick off four Democrats you go for the ring.

But just for a second, let's say I'm all wet and the county/delegation motives are pure, based in no more than a desire to save tax dollars and improve the quality of life for every resident of Hagerstown and Washington County. Then how are we to commence?

Well, first you need an executive. County Administrator Rod Shoop and City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman are both qualified, but Shoop has too much baggage, ranging from the John Howard stonewall to the Masters golf junket.

Plus, we need someone who will treat both city and county fairly, and Shoop has demonstrated borderline contempt for city residents.

Shoop is suing city taxpayers. He using city taxpayer money to pay off the county sewer department's monolithic sewer debt.

He took hotel-tax money that was supposed to pay for a big city project and turned it into little more than a political slush fund for his sitting commissioners.

Zimmerman, aside from being a good man, doesn't have this baggage or agenda. Or if he does, he keeps it quiet. To any objective observer, he's the obvious pick.

Now that we have an administrator, let's pencil in the elective leadership. Two from each board, say Jim Kercheval and Dori Nipps from the county and for sake of argument, let's make it Lew Metzner and Carol Moller.

We need a fifth, so how about a good representative from one of the county's small towns? It could be Mickey Myers or Dan Murphy, but let's take Skip Kauffman out of Boonsboro.

That gives us a 3-2 Republican majority, more or less in line with the county as a whole. The model will serve for the future, the county and city each sending two representatives and the small towns one.

It gives us a sound administrator and five level-headed people. The county, city and small towns are solidly represented.

For those not absorbed with politics or their own personal control trips or greasing the skids for their favorite special interest groups, such a setup makes good common sense and could be counted upon to fairly re-make local government.

Just don't be too surprised if common sense and fairness and equal representation are not exactly what the county and delegation have in mind.

What do you think about consolidating city and county government?

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