The Washington County Commissioners, then and now

July 13, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

I covered my first Washington County Commissioners meeting in May 1973 as a reporter for The Daily Mail. The five-member board met in a room in the Courthouse Annex, with two commissioners facing two others and the board's president facing the press table.

Visitors sat behind the commissioners, sometimes looking over their shoulders. And if there had been 20 there, the room would have been elbow to elbow.

Visitors were discouraged somewhat by the fact that smoking was allowed, including cigars. The ventilation system was not the best, so in the middle of a long afternoon, a haze hung in the air as reporters tried to stay awake.

As a writer for the afternoon paper, it was my job to get at least one story filed before lunch. I took notes, left the meeting and ran across the street and up two flights of stairs to the newsroom, where I dashed off a story, then returned to meeting.


Then, after the press run was complete, the commissioners' secretary brought in copies of the paper. Then as now, many people didn't realize that reporters don't write the headlines on their stories. I would take the heat when an editor wrote one that didn't suit the elected officials.

Sometimes finding someone to quote was tough. There was no administrator then, just the county clerk, and only on Tuesday did department heads come in to update the commissioners on what had happened in the last week.

In those days, the lack of other pressing business allowed the commissioners time to debate the merits of many different small issues, including the design of drainage ditches and whether hurricane straps should be required on mobile homes.

At day's end, the commissioners adjourned, began to put on their coats and the reporters crowded around to ask questions.

To their credit, subsequent county boards have continued to allow questions from the floor.

But there have been other changes. The county now has an administrator and although department heads report, they come when they have a project that the commissioners need an update on and not as a matter of routine.

The commissioners still meet as a group one day a week, which some have suggested isn't enough, given the complexity of the issues they face. On the other side, county staff has grown to the point where elected shouldn't have to approve, as they did Tuesday, the donation of an old sheriff's cruiser to the City of Hagerstown's Fire Police.

Tuesday's meeting, held at the administration building on Lee Street, was different from the meetings I covered way back when. Instead of the commissioners commenting on potholes that needed repair or streetlights that were burned out, most reports were from other meetings the individual commissioners had attended.

A few of the topics covered included:

Commissioner James Kercheval's reported that the group working on the revitalization of downtown Hagerstown has decided that one of its objectives will be to create or attract a "destination attraction."

Just what that might be is unknown now, although a museum would certainly drive foot traffic there.

Kercheval also said that the Planning Commission, on which he sits, is beginning to look at how to allocate school capacity to developers when new or renovated schools are opened.

Commissioner John Munson reported that the firefighters' group that ran a large bonanza last year at the Hagerstown Speedway is looking at the county's Ag Center for another such event. County policies on gaming and alcohol use will be reviewed, he said.

Commissioners President Greg Snook said that local medical examiners, who handle 60 to 70 cases per year, would like fees increased from $65 to $80 per visit. After hearing that such calls can sometimes take four hours, the board okayed the change.

Water Quality Director Greg Murray and his staff showed samples of a material that will be used to reline sewer pipes to prevent groundwater from entering them and increasing the load on the treatment plants.

The big bonus: Except where pipes have collapsed, there won't be any street excavations.

I'll be attending more meetings of local elected bodies in the months to come and sharing some of what I learn.

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

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