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City, county may need a tough-love fest

July 23, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

In John Schnebly's July 16 column, the former Washington County and Hagerstown County Council member lamented the fact that although much has been written about the benefits of intergovernmental cooperation, not enough has been accomplished.

"We're all for intergovernmental cooperation, but how do we get the love fest to break out?" Schnebly asked.

Apparently not by writing about it. In an otherwise tepid work session of the Hagerstown City Council this past Tuesday, Councilman Kristin Aleshire teed off on Schnebly's piece.

I won't offer chapter and verse here, because Aleshire has promised a written response. The gist of his gripe was that when Schnebly was an office-holder who had a chance to promote cooperation, he didn't do much, or as much as he could have done.

I didn't read Schnebly's piece as an attack on the city, but in retrospect, it might have been better if he had talked about how, in retrospect, he might have done things differently.

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So, given the sensitivity of all the players, how do we get the love fest to break out?

By getting everyone involved to think outside their roles as representatives of one government or another, where there are too many staffers who don't challenge politicians' beliefs that this or that will never work, because we've never done it that way.

Elected officials need to think as reporters do, which means opening yourself to the possibility that you are wrong.

I recently attended a meeting in which a citizen was questioning a local official. The citizen was predisposed not to believe what he was being told and he scowled at the official, scribbling notes only when he heard something he felt bolstered his case. As a result, the official was defensive and answered only the questions he was asked.

Reporters know that if those they interview feel that those asking questions have an open mind, they will get better answers. The best journalists don't just use the "poker face" of objectivity, but actually open themselves to the possibility that the person they're talking to could change their minds.

Too often, what we have when the two governments get together is a debate, with each side ready to argue its case at length. The problem with this approach is that everyone is drawn to the facts that bolster their own cases.

For example, when Steve Sager was mayor of Hagerstown, he argued that interconnecting the city and county sewer systems was not in the city's best interests. This past week, the interconnect was dedicated, using a plan that both sides say will bring them additional revenue.

Was Sager being duplicitous? No, but he and other officials were looking at the matter in just one way.

So how do we change that mindset? The easiest way would be to elect some people who are willing to seek new ideas.

But if the majority elected are current office-holders, how do we get them not to allow what they've already learned to keep them from considering other possibilities?

There are two ways. The first is for people in higher office to force it. For example, members of the county's General Assembly delegation could withhold their support for local bills and grants until they see some evidence of open-mindedness.

But with few exceptions - the county's excise tax comes to mind - the delegation has not pushed hard to force resolution of long-standing disuptes between the two largest local governments.

Before the delegation faces the loss of that coercive power in the form of charter home rule, members might consider a 2007 bill that would enforce cooperation.

The other and more likely possibility is that people such as me would write about how other areas have solved their problems. Rental registration - the regular inspection of rental properties - was taken more seriously in Hagerstown after The Herald-Mail wrote that Cumberland had had such a system in place for years.

If people in the city and county permits and inspections say that it's too difficult to merge their operations - and I haven't asked either lately - it's up to people such as me to look for places where such mergers have worked well.

We should also be keeping a closer eye on what is happening in nearby Winchester, Va., where a citizens group is studying the possible benefits of a merger with Frederick County, Va.

According to coverage in The Winchester Star, the Winchester City Council and the Frederick County Board of Supervisors named a steering committee to study the "more efficient and effective deliveries of local services ... through consolidation of the respective local governments or parts thereof."

That means that even if a full-blown merger doesn't take place, the two governments might still save money and improve efficiency by combining some services. Once the Virginia folks have done all the work, would it be too much to ask that Hagerstown and Washington County officials pledge to look at the results and decide which good ideas might be "borrowed" from them?

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

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