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The surprise is the best present of all

November 28, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

At age 55, I have all the material goods I could want, or could reasonably expect to get anyway. So if you're wondering what I'd like for Christmas this year, let me tell you. I might not get any of the items on this list, but as former Washington County Commissioner Paul Swartz once said, if you don't ask, you don't get.

In general, what I want is to be surprised. After 30 years in the newspaper business, I've learned that unless there's a tornado or some other emergency, government - which makes most of the news - seldom moves quickly.

And unlike baseball players, who want to keep their hand signals secret, government officials are eager for you to understand what they're going to do, long before they actually commit to doing it.

That's because if enough of you don't like what's on the menu, elected officials can claim that they never planned to serve it in the first place, that they were only "discussing our options."

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So when something finally happens, the surprise is that anything at all got done, because no matter how good an idea the plan under discussion is, someone will object, slowing up progress. Those of us who get paid to watch government sometimes feel as if we're hunting for the Loch Ness monster, hoping that that small ripple of action actually means something big is about to happen.

So here's what I'd like to see in 2005:

- An elected official, obviously unsuited to his or her job, who comes out and says, "This job is more work than I thought it would be and I'm really not qualified for it. Please appoint a better steward of the taxpayers' dollars."

- An elected board, which, when approached by a developer seeking a break from ordinances or fees would say: "The rules are the rules. If you don't like them, we're sure somebody else will come along who'll be glad to work with us."

- Anyone who slips and says the "f-word" in a public place and then apologizes to everyone within earshot.

- A parent who comes to a teacher conference and says, "I'm sorry for my child's behavior. I just haven't paid as much attention to discipline as I should have."

- A member of any school board who says, "We're spending as much money as we need to. We just have to get smarter about how we spend it."

- A citizen on the street, who when asked for a comment on the issue of the day, admits that he or she hasn't been paying attention and would rather not appear uninformed.

- A member of a citizen study committee who says, "I know the elected officials aren't going to pay any attention to what we recommend, but going to these meetings gets me out of the house at night."

- The parent of a defendant who comes to court and says, "What my child did was reprehensible and there's no excuse I can make for it."

- A candidate for office who loses and admits that "I guess people were turned off by all the mudslinging I did."

- A professional athlete who accepts a lesser offer to stay with his old team because he actually likes the area and the team's fans.

- Any owner of a vehicle with a window-rattling auto stereo who can explain why he parks the vehicle at a store or a gas pump and then goes inside while the music is still blasting.

- A Hagerstown official who, when commenting on the closing of a long-time downtown business, says, "It's a tragedy."

- A citizen who admits that he wants to know the salaries of people who work in government "because I'm just a nosy guy."

- Cell phone users who can explain why they wave their arms or punch the air for emphasis when they know the person on the other end can't see them.

- Drivers who can tell me why they take the dogs they profess to love with them to places where animals aren't allowed, then lock them in the car with the windows cracked.

- A parent whose child makes a mess in a restaurant or grocery story who goes to the clerk and says, "If you'll give me a mop, I'll clean this up."

- An official for any pharmaceutical company who can tell me why such firms run commercials or print advertisements for a drug without actually saying what condition it treats.

- Anyone who can explain why, the day after some horrible episode of the flu, they are compelled to go out in public to share whatever germs are lingering about their person with the rest of us.

- A financial analyst who can tell me why, in simple terms, how U.S. business hopes to build long-term, stable companies when there's so much emphasis on the next quarter's profits.

- A grocer who can explain who asked stores to stock some of these exotic vegetables that few on this continent had ever seen before 1990, some of which look as appetizing as clods of dirt.

You get the picture. All I want is for a few people to surprise me by behaving better than I've come to expect and by telling the truth instead of what they think I want to hear. It should be easy, considering how much time is still left before Christmas.

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