PenMar fiasco proving power rests with the privileged few

March 21, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Like the Four Don Quixotes of the Apocalypse, former PenMar board members Wayne Alter, Paula Lampton, Terry Randall, along with Del. Chris Shank, have spent the better part of the young year galloping wildly with their lances focused on the group that now controls the future of Fort Ritchie, the old Army base in Cascade.

Their baffling, bungling journey has been amusing and even pie-in-the-face funny at times, as what began as a behind-the-scenes power play has spilled out into a public fiasco.

Funny, except no one's laughing anymore.

As individuals, these are good and talented people who have done much in the service of Washington County. But they need to understand what is happening right now, as a backwater issue that no one outside of Cascade cared about, is on the brink of calling Washington County government's entire public trust into question.

Run-of-the-mill folks in Washington County have long grumbled that a few local people in high places get the breaks that the rest of us are not afforded. A whispered word in a back room from one of these privileged and wealthy few would elicit immediate action from the elected officials - frequently to the detriment of the community as a whole.


The "haves" get the zoning variances, the sweet contracts and the exemptions to the rules all the rest of us have to follow. The "have nots" get a roadway or a shopping center shoved up their back yards.

This goes on everywhere to some degree, and it would be naive to think that it didn't. But we like to think our elected officials do have some combination of backbone and soul that will allow them to stand up to the power trusts at some point and say "No, sorry, on this issue the people come first."

And heavens, if the power brokers are going to manipulate, they should at least have the good taste and courtesy to do so quietly. That way, they and government maintain their "plausible deniability," and the community is left with suspicions and circumstantial evidence, but no smoking gun that makes it obvious the office holders are mere stooges for the elite.

In the case of PenMar, this well-established, sleight-of-hand system broke down entirely. And Shank appears as a marionette, letting his strings be pulled not from behind the scenes, but right out in public for all to see.

Led by Shank, who along with other local lawmakers, got campaign contributions from some members of the old PenMar guard, the delegation filed an awful bill, which would destroy a decent group of men and women who picked up the pieces of PenMar, made friends with the residents of Cascade, worked well with the Army and moved development of the old base further along in three months than the old board did in six years.

Shank argues the point of course, but the people see no ambiguity here. No gray area. To the county as a whole, it looks as if Shank is doing the bidding of the privileged few, to the harm of the rest.

Shank is a good delegate, who probably got swept up in this mess before completely thinking it through. But he needs to see this through the people's eyes.

A man on the street will ask himself this: If I and two of my friends go to Shank and ask him to pass a state law changing the membership of some county-appointed board, will I get the same consideration and lightening-quick action as Alter, Lampton and Randall?

And it will take that man on the street no time to conclude that all men in Washington County are not created equal - at least as far as the Washington County legislative delegation is concerned.

Meanwhile, a tip of the hat goes to the people of Cascade, for dragging this rancid PenMar deal into the sunlight for all to see and smell. Obviously, the former board members didn't count on the savvyness and tenacity of this mountaintop buzzsaw, which had the audacity to fight back instead of wilting cooperatively away.

Soundly and effectively confronted, the opposition had to come out and show their faces to fight back. And they've looked bad, making arguments to the legislature, no kidding, such as this one: The new PenMar board is evil because they let the boys and girls of Cascade use the Army's old gymnasium.

The legislative committee, which normally rubber-stamps local bills out of "courtesy" immediately voiced serious reservations, asking what in the world was going on.

What is going on? Who knows? To date, no argument the old guard has made comes close to making sense. But here's what it looks like to the people:

The old board failed, the new board is succeeding and the old board can't stand it. Or perhaps they simply can't stand the thought of losing control.

Probably deep down, Alter, Lampton and Randall truly believe they have the community's interests at heart. Perhaps they do. Perhaps there is some justification that they, for whatever reason, just can't make the public or the legislature see. But how do they argue the fact that the old board was a disaster a minute, while the new board is making tangible progress?

How can the four believe it would be better to go back to the old ways?

The old guard may well still win. But here is what they will have won: Along with the destruction of a competent board, they will have won the destruction of the people's faith in our elected government to do the right thing for the good of the entire community, even if it's against the wishes of the privileged few. What a hollow, demoralizing victory that would be.

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