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How local government works, or doesn't

February 15, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Last month I got a call from a woman who had recently moved to Hagerstown from California to be closer to her daughter. She pronounced the downtown much nicer than many she'd seen and said the housing prices were more reasonable than those in Annapolis, where her daughter lives.

But she confessed to being baffled by the workings of local government and how the City Council relates to the Washington County government. As Rodney King said, why can't they all get along?

The answer is part history and part personalities. The city owns the county's largest municipal water system and its own sewer system, both of which it has extended to areas outside the city limits.

But how and when the city has agreed to do this has historically had less to do with what made financial sense than with politics. Agreements took years to hammer out, usually after a period of strutting and roaring between city and county elected officials that reminds me of some things you see on the Nature Channel. Only in the case of the city and county, the object of this ritual combat is not to see who gets to mate with the female, but who wins the argument.

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Here's where the personality part comes in. On both sides are people with good intentions, but with very different views, equally convinced that they're right. Their visions of what should happen are so detailed that they fear that a single change would cause the whole thing to tumble like a house of cards.

And lady, if you're puzzled by this, imagine covering it for years at a time. Waiting for progress is like waiting for a blossom to emerge from the night-blooming cereus, a fragrant flower that emerges only once a year, provided all conditions are right. Or waiting in an interminable line at a fast-food restaurant behind someone who can't make up their mind whether they want a hamburger or a cheeseburger.

In either case, yelling at the flower to bloom or telling the uncertain customer to make a decision already usually won't help. It certainly doesn't help with elected officials, because many of them are convinced that only they know enough to make the decision. And though they may not say it, they view you as a irritating distraction, like people who insist on telling you about their dreams. The sleeping kind, I mean.

This certainty about how right they are is so ingrained that even when they change their minds, most, with the exception of people like Councilman Lew Metzner, feel no obligation to explain their thought processes, or to acknowledge that their previous position was in error.

For example, the Washington County Commissioners have appointed a number of noncounty residents to the PenMar Development Corp., an agency created to redevelop the former Fort Ritchie Army base.

Now comes the Washington County delegation, which initially wanted to pass a bill requiring all PenMar members to be county residents. This would have removed at least three members, including Ron Sulchek, PenMar's board chairman.

Did Commissioners President Greg Snook protest and insist that the commissioners had made good choices? No, he said the change wouldn't give him any "heartburn," a remark that certainly burned those who have given their time, for no money, in an attempt to serve the public.

At this point, dear lady, you may ask why the public puts up with such nonsense. It's because Washington County voters are, in many cases, not politically sophisticated. In the last election, a little more than half the registered voters turned out. Those people, presumably the most knowledgeable and concerned, elected John Munson as county commissioner only because his name was similar to that of state Sen. Don Munson.

Many of the people who know better, like business and community leaders, will tell you privately that there's not much leadership in local elected office. But they won't speak up because "we have to work with those people."

The irony is that real progress has been made locally only when elected officials or community leaders spoke up and pushed the two largest local governments to compromise their differences.

It's time to speak up again. Commissioner Snook recently said he wanted to see more "cooperation" out of the city, implying that unless the city made some gesture of submission - we're back to the Nature Channel again - no county help would be forthcoming.

Wouldn't it be better if Snook were more specific about what he wanted? Wouldn't it be better if the city could offer a counter proposal without a take-it-or-leave-it attitude? Wouldn't it be nice if both sides could learn the art of compromise?

"Yes" to all of those, but they probably won't happen unless citizens tell elected officials they'll no longer tolerate this battle-of-the-barnyard rooster fight that passes for public debate.

And while it may be momentarily amusing to read that some local elected official believes it would be a good idea to abolish the public schools, consider what it says about the people who elected him.

Welcome to Hagerstown, lady. We'll try not to embarrass ourselves too badly while you're here.

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