If you're not sure you're always right, you're what we need

July 02, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Sometimes you don't know what it is that you've got. And if you're not willing to remain open to the possibility that what you've been thinking of as an apple is really an orange that's been painted red, you might be in trouble.

I thought about that this week, following my interview with Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong Jr.

One of the things Strong said was that it is important for a prosecutor to keep an open mind on cases, so that if new information surfaces, it isn't disregarded because it doesn't fit the previous theory of what happened.

That struck a chord with me because the same thing applies to journalists. With many, many stories, you don't really know what you've got until you've made that last phone call.

If you're not ready to rewrite it all at that point - and admit that what you thought was happening really isn't - you're probably going to get into trouble and sooner rather than later.


The same advice applies to elected officials. They have to be confident enough of their knowledge to act decisively, but not so much that they begin to believe that there are no answers except the ones that they've worked out.

Consider the ongoing dysfunctional relationship between Hagerstown and Washington County. Years after the discussion began - and a detour for a court case that didn't really solve much - the two governments still don't have an agreement on annexation policy.

What this means is that a new company that chooses a site in a certain part of the county served by city utilities must be told something like this:

"Someday you might have to pay city property taxes in addition to what the county charges, but how much that might be and when you might get the bill is unknown now."

If you were a business prospect, would that inspire you to speed up your plan to locate here, or reconsider it?

In this matter, the county has the whip hand and while the relationship between the two has been described as a partnership, it's really more like the "partnership" between Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.

Cratchit, or in this case the City Council, is free to ask the county government for a just annexation policy, but like the poor bookkeeper in Dickens' story, the city has little leverage, except the threat of undermining economic development, to force an equitable arrangement.

At this point any county official reading this is probably saying, "Hey, we do plenty for those guys."

Yes, the county government did kick in money for the second downtown parking deck, but only after the council agreed not to require an economic development prospect in the county to sign a pre-annexation agreement.

And speaking of economic development, is there really no way the county can help fill up a lot of the office space downtown, as opposed to pushing new projects in the suburbs?

Hagerstown is the county seat, after all, but what the commissioners don't seem to realize is what is amply demonstrated in David Rusk's "Cities Without Suburbs."

Using a ton of studies and statistics, Rusk convincingly makes the case that when a city with many low-income residents is surrounded by a more wealthy county, both are less prosperous than they would be if both areas' incomes were more equal.

In other words, if what you have is a county wrapped around a city with a decayed center, what's missing or wrong in the center will eventually affect the area around it, and not for the better.

So what we need are elected county officials open to a new relationship and the possibility that a new way might be a better way.

We also need such officials to look beyond today, to the potential effects of their decisions on the future.

For example, back in the 1970s, Hagerstown's Pennsylvania Avenue was seen as a less effective transportation corridor than it should have been, because there were so many driveways that exited right onto the road.

At that time, the late Donald R. Frush, who headed the county's planning effort, argued that there should be service roads along main arteries, so that traffic could be collected at certain points. And yet, when Eastern Boulevard was built as a bypass of Hagerstown, too many driveways were allowed to exit straight onto the road. (It was also built with two lanes for the traffic flow of that time, as opposed to building four lanes for the future.)

The record is full of such examples - the failure to do a full upgrade of Robinwood Drive even after the Robinwood Medical Center was opened is just one - but those in office now are not all to blame.

However, it is time to look for some candidates who can get beyond the adversarial relationship of the past and look at some new ideas. Perhaps if there were less conflict and winning small battles in an ongoing struggle were not as important as it seems to be now, elected officials would be more apt to look forward.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have a personal stake in intergovernmental peace. After 30-plus years, this bloodless war is boring, not to mention slow-moving, as a battle of snails might be.

When nothing gets solved, it's no wonder citizens tune out and voter turnout drops. It's time to try to find some open minds.

Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of The Herald-Mail nespapers.

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