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To sell a good idea, first sell yourself

June 08, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

Kristin Aleshire is one of the brightest and hardest-working members of the Hagerstown City Council. He donates his entire council salary to charity, he's held taxes down by combing through the city's budget book and he figured out out that some fees the city was charging for its services didn't cover the cost of providing them.

Unfortunately, what you are likely to remember is that he walked his dogs on a path in City Park, in defiance of the park rules.

His lengthy explanation of what he did and his defense of it appear elsewhere in this section and I will leave it to readers to decide what to make of it.

I do know that it's small potatoes and wouldn't be worth writing about except for the fact that it exposes a truth about elected officials that explains why the truly successful ones are so rare.

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How do I define success? A successful elected official is one who not only has good ideas, but can sell them to the public as well.

Consider Harold "Hal" Phillips, a candidate for Washington County Commissioner in the last election. Phillips had an idea that no one has successfully refuted: This county runs more schools per-capita than many Maryland systems and the academic success you'd expect from students in smaller schools just isn't there.

Phillips proposed to take money saved by consolidating schools and increase teacher pay, luring the best and brightest educators to the system.

What he didn't realize was that he needed to sell parents on the idea that giving up the status quo would help their children. He was like a traveling evangelist who passed out Bibles to all he met and then left without a word, not realizing that you've got to do a bit of preaching to get folks to open up the good book.

On the other side of the aisle are officials like Commissioners' President Greg Snook. He and others have successfully sold themselves to the public, but having closed the sale are seldom willing to take the risk of trying to sell a big idea.

When the health department recently announced that a series of wells in the Boonsboro area were contaminated with fecal coliform - human or animal wastes - Snook said that he would not consider the idea of laying pipe for municipal water or sewer systems unless some state cash was forthcoming.

Where's the leadership that should be considering how to protect those residents and their children from pathogens that can cause diseases like hepatitis? Where's the common sense that should quickly deduce that in this SARS-scared nation, the last thing Washington County's image needs is the outbreak of some dangerous infectious disease?

His behavior is in stark contrast to that of another commissioner, who, when confronted with a 1983 outbreak of hepatitis in the Martin's Crossroads area, took the stand that the county should find a way to provide municipal water to all the areas between Hagerstown and the Conococheague Creek.

That commissioner? Martin L. "Marty" Snook, Greg Snook's father.

Now back to Aleshire. When I first interviewed him, he told me that when dealing with an issue, his goal is to do as much or more research than anybody at the table.

He has thought through the issues of growth and development and is not burdened by the attitude that if the community doesn't let developers do whatever they want with their property, regardless of the cost to the taxpayers, then the opportunity for economic growth will be lost forever.

What he hasn't done is to sell any of his ideas to the public in an effective way. He has written some letters to the editor, but he resists help with that process, even though he is one of those unfortunate people who can explain an idea very well in conversation, but whose writing is not brief or clear. Read his letter today and tell me if I'm wrong.

I take him to task now not to be cruel, but to appeal to him not to let his promise get lost in trivial issues like whether it's lawful to walk one's dog in City Park.

Whether it's illegal or not - and as this is being written no one has found an ordinance that says it is - does he really want to argue in favor of turning this beautiful park into a dog-walking area? As one letter-writer said, there's enough duck feces there already.

Aleshire got upset after being confronted in the park by some West Virginians who were by his account less than polite. I too have been in those situations. For instance, in February 2002 I spent more than $100 to take my wife to see singer Anne Murray at the Maryland Theatre.

Behind us, a gabby trio of senior citizens from Winchester, Va., kept up a running commentary on the show, resisting all suggestions that they shut up until I felt like slapping their flapping lips. I didn't, because I considered how the headline would read if I had done so: "Herald-Mail editor involved in confrontation with elderly tourists."

As a public figure, resisting those urges and biting your tongue is what you have to do, if you hope to be effective and use whatever credibility you've built up to do some good.

The public's attention span is short and there is a tendency to use a kind of mental shorthand to classify people. Kristin Aleshire needs to decide whether he's going to be the dog-walking guy or the man with the big ideas Hagerstown needs.

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