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The hospital won't have the city to kick around anymore? Good

July 24, 2005|By Tim Rowland

That giant thud you heard this week was the sound of the proposed Washington County Hospital landing square in the laps of the County Commissioners, complete with a bow and a note from Hagerstown City Hall saying "No Longer Our Problem."

City council members say they are sick of being the "whipping boy" in the ongoing hospital debate, while the commissioners and state lawmakers stand around with "their heads in the sand."

This announcement, of course, would have significantly more umph to it had the council over the past couple of years not stood up and begged to be the whipping boy.

Really, the city's been bellowing at the hospital from Day 1. When were the County Commissioners or the Washington County Delegation supposed to get a word in edgewise? Rightly or wrongly, the council started this fight. The council spent more than $300,000 and cauldron after cauldron of steaming rhetoric battling the hospital. The council was aggressively part and parcel to making this the contentious issue that it has become.

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So please spare us this "whipping boy" stuff.

All that said, however, the city's decision to wash its hands of the project and hand it off to the county is probably appropriate - or as appropriate as events have allowed things to get.

Through this whole sorry affair, the hospital has given the city just enough ammunition to keep rational people on both sides of the debate shaking their heads. And one large caliber bullet is this: To date, the hospital hasn't even asked for the most basic of development steps, that being zoning approval for the Robinwood project.

The hospital has maintained that it needed a promise from the city of adequate sewage-treatment capacity before it sought zoning. Seems to me they need both. And delaying the zoning request only gave people grounds for suspicion.

And now it appears the hospital will indeed go ahead and petition the county for zoning with or without the sewer promise - and, as the city made clear, it is going to have to be without.

The city says it isn't in a position to promise anything, because too many legal balls are up in the air including the past "unpleasantness" that allowed pollution from the broken down city plant to enter Antietam Creek.

Funny, City Hall is now occupied by five of the greatest friends of the environment you ever met.

Can't possibly approve any sewer until there's no more chance of future leaks. All right, all right, we know where this is going. If the city doesn't want to accept hospital sewage it can probably find a semi-believable reason not to, most likely the fear of some lawsuit or another.

So while the city says it is washing its hands of the hospital project, it's very likely that a majority of the council still believes it holds a trump card. Council Member Lew Metzner took a rational approach, indicating he would give a good-faith effort to find a sewer solution.

Councilman Kristin Aleshire, who if you gave him a hot fudge sundae would complain about the size of the cherry pit, can always be counted on to find something he doesn't like about a deal. But you get the sense he's willing to listen. Same for Council Member Alesia Parson-McBean. Council Members Kelly Cromer and Penny Nigh, though, seem skeptical.

Now put all that aside for a moment and consider the hospital's zoning request. One of these days it may become clear why the hospital has dragged its feet on zoning, and that day will come when it walks into a double-barrel shotgun blast of community opposition.

Remember, we've barely heard a public peep from members of the Robinwood community. They've been keeping their powder dry, presumably watching to see what would happen with the whipping boys over at City Hall.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a group of community activists who scared off Wal-Mart because their backyard is already miserable with congestion. Think they wouldn't enjoy adding the hospital's scalp to the belt?

The commissioners won't vote against the hospital. As demonstrated in the H.B. Mellott Estates quarry consensus this week, they will never side with the public over a well-connected developer.

But, as Metzner seems to desire, there will be some element of amusement in sitting back and watching them squirm. Two county political careers went in opposite directions this week with the Mellott vote. Commissioner Jim Kercheval earned a marked degree of respect, because even though he generally takes the established line, he demonstrated independence and the ability to make a tough vote against something he believes is wrong.

By contrast, Commissioner John Munson, in siding with Mellott, is toast. You can't play the role of "Mr. Friend of the Taxpaying Little People," and then sell your soul to a big developer, despite overwhelming community opposition. This is very out-of-line with every other position he's ever taken. Even to his constituency, Munson's quarry stance is going to smell, and smell bad. Next fall, he's done.

Which doesn't mean that by the time the hospital vote comes up he won't be backpeddling furiously trying to reclaim some of his populist mantra. And of course Commissioner Bill Wivell can always be counted upon to yield to popular majority. And Kercheval has proved he's no gimmee...

Uh-oh.

Next year, might we find ourselves confronted with a a "slate" running for the Board of County Commissioners? How much would City Hall enjoy seeing that?

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