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He's alone in the minority

Munson often sets himself apart from other commissioners

Munson often sets himself apart from other commissioners

December 15, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Nearly every week, four of the five Washington County Commissioners get together for lunch.

Most of the time, it's part of a learning expedition to a county agency or community group. Sometimes, they just go out for a bite at a downtown eatery during a break from marathon weekly meetings.

One thing is consistent. Commissioner John C. Munson is always absent.

The weekly lunches could be a microcosm for how this group of commissioners has operated during their first year in office.

The same way Munson has set himself apart at lunch, he sets himself apart at commissioners' meetings by voicing opinions that are often contrary to the majority.

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At different times over the year, he has taken some extreme positions by calling for the elimination of public schools and the County Commuter public bus system.

When the commissioners decided in October to extend a growth moratorium for up to a year, Munson was the lone dissenting vote.

"I think John, in some instances, has separated himself from us," said Commissioner Doris J. Nipps.

Nipps and the other commissioners don't publicly criticize Munson.

But most try to distance themselves from his positions. When he brings up a controversial idea at a meeting, it's most often greeted with silence.

Munson did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said he thinks Munson has a tendency to talk before he thinks.

"Ultimately, it's up to the voters how they'll react to him. I'm not going to publicly attack him, but I'm not going to defend him either," he said.

Other commissioners and Shank said they don't think Munson's highly publicized positions - or a pending assault charge against him - hurt the board's credibility.

"Folks I've talked to have seen him as a lone person and don't lump us together," Nipps said.

"I would hope the public judge each of us on our own merits," Commissioner James F. Kercheval said.

Commissioners say they have a good working relationship with each other and have been able to make progress during a time when budget constraints and growth pressures are bearing down on the county.

Shank and Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington, said they have been impressed with the commissioners' willingness to tackle some difficult issues.

"They're taking the bull by the horns," Shank said.

Three of the five commissioners, including Munson and Nipps, were new to the board this term.

Part of the year was spent getting them up to speed on the inner workings of the county, said Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, a 13-year veteran of the board.

Even though all five are Republicans, they don't always agree.

But commissioners said they are able to vigorously debate issues in the board room without leaving any hard feelings on the table.

"It's a conscious decision not to take it personal," Kercheval said. "If you approach people in a nonjudgmental way you can state that you're not happy with their position."

Snook said the commissioners have to make dozens of decisions quickly and they don't get bogged down with arguments.

"We agree to disagree on certain issues, but once the decision's been made, we go on," Snook said.

It's not always Munson who is alone in the minority when it comes to voting.

Commissioner William J. Wivell, who is in his second term, has joined Munson in opposing the other commissioners' votes to enact new growth taxes and move forward with a controversial rezoning plan.

Kercheval tried to get the commissioners to borrow more money now, while interest rates are low. But his efforts were frustrated by more conservative members who wanted to limit the county's debt.

Munson ran on a zero-debt platform for the county and has been consistent in his votes against debt and new taxes.

Board members said they're proud they haven't shied away from discussing controversial issues.

Nipps said it helps that she feels comfortable talking to the other commissioners.

The other commissioners often look to her to provide insight on education issues since she served on the School Board for eight years.

Kercheval tends to be the group's prankster. When Wivell isn't looking, he'll lower his chair.

Wivell and Kercheval went to high school together and their banter reflects that familiarity.

Kercheval teases Wivell about being thin and Wivell shoots back with quips about Kercheval's curly locks.

Humor has been a stress-reliever for the board, the commissioners said.

"It lightens up the air a little bit. I don't see anything wrong with it," Wivell said.

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