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Out of the spotlight, Snook will finally be able to relax

July 09, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

When the votes were cast in the last Washington County Commissioners election, Greg Snook had both won and lost: Won the race, but lost anonymity.

Snook seemed most comfortable on boards with a clear three- or four-member majority, where his vote was not central to the outcome.

But the new board was clearly comprised of a couple of two-member factions. Commissioners John Munson and Bill Wivell preferred what is, while commissioners Jim Kercheval and Dori Nipps concentrated more on what will be.

Suddenly, Snook's vote mattered, and mattered very much.

Since everyone knew where the other four stood on most issues, the swing vote was suddenly quite visible and a lightning rod for lobbying prior to the vote and criticism afterward.


That is not a place where Snook likes to be. Typically saying little in his announcement this week that he would not seek re-election, we don't know if this was part of Snook's reasoning, but I suspect it at least played a part.

Some relish the spotlight - think Ron Bowers wouldn't have loved being the center of attention each and every Tuesday? - some don't.

Snook was the commission's leading vote-getter because he was so personable out of the office and so invisible in it. He seemed horribly uncomfortable making decisions others would find offensive.

With clear majorities in place on past commissions, he didn't have to. He could cast a dissenting (and more popular) vote without affecting the outcome.

This term the dynamic changed. His vote would affect the outcome, and boiled down to a choice between doing what was politically popular and doing what he personally thought was best for the county - which frequently are two very different things.

To his credit, Snook chose conscience over politics.

Take the recent vote on funding for the Discovery Station learning center in Hagerstown, which serves the dual role of educating kids and as something downtown has far too few of: A destination.

On the table was a $20,000 request, which in the scheme of the county budget is like a CEO tossing a homeless person a quarter.

Oh, but we hate spending our "hard-earned tax dollars" on anything that doesn't personally benefit us, so the popular vote was to "hold the line against spending," which Wivell and Munson were all too willing to do.

"I can see if that place was furnishing food or clothing our housing for anybody, but it's not," Munson said.

Except that curiosity and education directly lead to better jobs, better income and ... food, clothing and housing.

Ten years ago, had there been a three- or four-member majority in support of a project such as Discovery Station, Snook might have voted against it, since he knew he would be taking the popular stand, without hurting a project that he might have privately thought was a good idea.

Now, when his vote did matter, he came through with what I feel pretty certain was the right vote, approving the funding.

You don't have to agree with the vote to admire the conviction. His swing vote for the staggeringly expensive airport runway expansion may to turn out to have perpetuated a horrible boondoggle. Or it may turn out to be visionary. We won't know for at least 20 years. But at least we know Snook wasn't simply "voting for show."

It's possible too that Snook felt pressured by unseen forces into making some of the votes he did - on the budget, airport, growth, spending, land use, taxes - against his better judgment.

But on emotional issues such as these, there are going to be loud voices pulling equally opposing directions. What's left to do in those cases, except just do what you think is right? Somebody's going to be mad either way.

And in the end, making people mad just isn't Snook's cup of tea. The sewer controversy of the '90s wore on him. He couldn't even take his family on a Sunday outing at PenMar park without getting an earful.

But 10 or 15 years ago, for the most part, the county pace was slow, the disputes were more civilized and far less hung in the balance. Doing nothing was always the comfortable default mode.

Today, the future of the county is at a crossroads, socially, economically and culturally. Everywhere you look, millions of dollars in cash and property are at stake. People fear the loss of their comforts, their peace and quiet and their values.

And, having studied at the knees of Rush Limbaugh and Chris Matthews, people are angry. And loud. It's not enough to have an opinion anymore, that opinion has to be shouted and insults tossed at anyone who might dare to think differently than you. And if your side loses, file a lawsuit.

Speculation will run rampant as to why Snook decided to call it quits at a time when most career politicians with safe seats are just getting warmed up.

But as much as anything, I would guess the commissioner considered all of the above and thought to himself three little words:

Who needs it?

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