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It's election time, do you know where your surveyor is?

March 15, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Meet the odds-on favorite to become the next elected Surveyor of Lands Berkeley County, W.Va. She's, energetic, 19 years of age (20 in April, she'll quickly tell you) and majoring in accounting and economics at Shepherd College, while holding down two part-time jobs.

I didn't ask, but I got the impression that Lyndsey Ward Leatherman of Falling Waters doesn't know, or particularly care, how many poles are in a chain, or how many virgates are in a hide.

"I'm not really nervous about surveying, because you don't have to do any - and that makes me happy, since I don't know how," she said.

What does a county surveyor in West Virginia do? Not much, except to make an instructive case in how difficult it is to move the structure of government off of ground zero.

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"Change is extremely difficult," says current Berkeley County Surveyor of Lands David Michael Myers.

Myers is wrapping up his second four-year term as surveyor, and dryly says it's time to pass the torch to someone younger and more energetic. For the past eight years, Myers has tried unsuccessfully to get the post to which he was duly elected abolished.

The post of Surveyor of Lands in the state dates back to colonial times, and used to have no small degree of meaning. The county surveyor mapped out, built and maintained the roads and even had the authority to press farmers into manual labor to get the job done, Myers said.

The post evolved somewhat over the years, but essentially lost all relevance in 1933 when the state took over responsibility for highways and byways. But county surveyor has remained an elected post.

"There are no duties and absolutely no qualifications necessary to run," Myers said. "You don't have to be a surveyor to be a county surveyor."

Still, it's not a huge expense to the taxpayers, considering that along with no responsibilities, the position pays no salary and maintains no office.

To Myers though, it became something of a symbol for archaic government. About half of West Virginia's 55 counties don't even bother to elect a surveyor, even though it's mandated by the state's constitution. Only one county that he discovered bothers to maintain an office for the surveyor. It includes two other perks: A telephone and health insurance.

Myers took his case to Charleston, but was rejected by state lawmakers: "I was told if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

So he's decided to pass the torch, endorsing his fellow Republican. "The Republican Party has always led the way in the struggle for equal rights for all. Lindsey Leatherman is bright, capable, and energetic. She is as fully qualified as anyone for the job. As county surveyor, she will receive the same pay and benefits as all male county surveyors, a basic principle of Republicanism," Myers said in a release announcing his withdrawal from the race.

Leatherman, for her part, acknowledges the futility of the office, but has decided to employ a different tactic. "If it's going to be there anyway, I want to do something that will make the position useful," she said. If elected, she said she may use the office to promote community service.

Meantime, she'll use the experience as a real-world civics lesson. "I've always been interested in the political process, and this seemed like a good way to get experience," she said.

Granted, the constitutionally mandated position of surveyor in West Virginia is the mildest of tempests in the smallest of teapots, but anyone who has tried to get any area of government to change for the better can probably relate.

Not that government can't change for the better - I would point to the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration as proof. But a built in resistance to change makes it difficult.

Myers may be right, the stain of surveyor should be sponged off the constitutional countertop; but Leatherman has the next best solution - turn an essentially volunteer office into a rallying point for volunteers, countywide. I wish her well.

What an evolution that would be. An officer who once forced rural farmers into highway labor, now the point person for lending a helping hand. Perhaps 50 years hence, some senior citizen might mildly muse over how it ever came to pass that the county Surveyor of Lands was kindly delivering Meals on Wheels. And Lyndsey Leatherman will be the answer.

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