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Time for business community to step up

October 09, 2005|By Bob Maginnis

After reading Hagerstown Mayor Richard "Dick" Trump's Oct. 2 interview with The Herald-Mail's Andy Schotz, I am convinced that the mayor's problem with the council is not just related to his personal style, but also to the fact that his philosophy is different from theirs.

The good news: I believe this disconnect can be fixed. The bad news: It will take some work on the part of Trump and the business community to do it and I wonder if either is willing to put in the time.

Putting in time is what it will take, as the Washington County Commissioners found out when they set up the 2-plus-2 committee made up of two council members and two commissioners.

When the group began meeting, the council members believed that county government was all for give and take, as long as the city was doing all the giving. Over time, some members of the council have been convinced otherwise.

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In the matter of sharing new revenues, the commissioners have made the case that much of the cash needs to go toward the renovation of city schools, which will in turn assist in the city's revitalization.

If the list of 2-plus-2 accomplishments is skimpy, well, at least the two governments haven't sued each other lately and the "who's the biggest rooster in the barnyard" bluster from the county that led to major missteps on annexation and sewer rates seems to have dissipated.

Now to Trump. As the mayor said during a recent work session, the city must grow and the council should allow that growth and be confident that the problems associated with it can be solved. Developers need to be courted, the mayor believes, and not held strictly accountable if they run afoul of laws such as the Forest Conversation Act, for the alleged violation of which one developer is facing a $140,000 fine.

On the idea that this developer is a "good citizen" who has been "friendly to the city" and who has "put a lot of money into this community," Trump would rather negotiate the fine, perhaps allowing that developer to contribute cash to the construction of a fountain in the new University Park downtown.

It might work out that way, but the council has reason to distrust the business community in general. After all, the wife of the executive director of the Greater Hagerstown Committee ran on a slate that was determined to unseat the incumbents. Trump's argument about the council's obstructionism also sounds like the same one the Washington County Hospital has used and we know that so far that hasn't worked too well.

The council sees growth rushing at them and the developers as people who resemble patrons at an all-you-can-eat buffet who are trying to munch all they can before the serving line shuts down.

This isn't entirely fair, because many developers are trying to play by the rules as they're written now. It's their bad fortune that council members have decided that if they allow development to proceed at the densities now allowed in the zoning ordinance, the city will be overwhelmed and unable to provide services.

That's one reason behind Councilman Kristin Aleshire's quest to push developers to alter their plans in exchange for city approval. Developer Ken Jordan's project on 52 acres along Haven Road has been reduced from his original proposal of 450 dwelling units to 376.

I'd bet if it were put to a vote, most city residents would back Aleshire's philosophy, which holds that the city need not automatically accept what developers propose.

But there are flaws in both sides' thinking. Trump seems to be clinging to the outdated idea that if the council says "no" to a developer, no one will ever ask again. The council is clinging to the unrealistic belief that if they don't hold back the tide, no one else will. In truth, the school system and state sewer officials will have a big say, even though the council is resisting (wrongly, in my view) giving schools a greater say in this.

So what's my solution to this gridlock? Trump is outnumbered and even if the charter isn't changed, he hasn't got much power. He has what Teddy Roosevelt called "the bully pulpit," but using it to scold the council isn't the approach that will work.

What Trump should do is persuade the business community to contribute to city projects without asking for anything in return. As a born-again Christian, Trump is certainly familiar with Luke 6:35, which quotes Jesus as saying "But love ye your enemies, and do good and lend, hoping for nothing again ..."

Pardon this sinner for quoting the Bible, but this chapter's prescription to do things without expecting something in return is not only good for the soul, but smart public relations as well. This will be especially true if the council can begin to see business leaders as people with the good of the community at heart.

Yes it's unfair that people who have done a great deal already should have to prove themselves to this group of elected officials. But this is the hand that's been dealt and it's about three and a half years until the next deal. So the business community can fold and watch, hoping they'll get a more compliant council the next time, or they can be proactive and work on the relationship now.

And one more thing: Rightly or wrongly, they're tied to Trump, at least in the council's mind. This is probably why the proposal to fund an enhanced Leadership Hagerstown system got no support from council, even though it's a great program.

The business community's choice now is to either disavow Trump and work out their own separate relationship with the council or help the mayor on his political skills, which, if they were a house, would only qualify as a fixer-upper at this point. Will the business community will choose to get out its toolbox?

Stay tuned.

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