Get set for a whale of a county board race

August 05, 2006|by GEORGE MICHAEL

What a crowded field! There are 24 candidates for the Washington County Board of Commissioners for only five seats. And four of those seats are held by incumbents, meaning there is only one "open" seat.

What's up here? Is this a case where some political sharks are circling, sensing blood in the water? Or is it just a case of political novices wanting to get their feet wet in local government?

By contrast, Maryland state Dels. Chris Shank and Bob McKee have no opponents in their races for the House of Delegates. The same is true for state Sen. Don Munson in the Maryland Senate. These are safe seats. Running against an incumbent who has a good track record is very unappealing, even foolhardy.

Commissioners President Greg Snook, the highest vote-getter in all four of the races in which he has participated, has chosen not to run. He cited the typical reasons about time for a change and giving someone else a chance. His stepping down had been rumored for months.


But it is still huge. His dad, Marty Snook, set a high standard for political leadership, personal integrity and public decorum in Washington County. Everyone was saddened by his untimely death.

Greg Snook benefited from the name recognition and popularity of his dad when he ran for office. Possessing many of his dad's traits, he served our county well. He always treated others with courtesy and respect. Given his public stature, Snook was guaranteed this seat for as long as he wanted it.

But the time commitment and troublesome public issues have a way of taking a toll on our public leaders.

A commissioner's job is no walk in the park.

One troublesome issue in the last term was the new downzoning plan for Washington County. It generated some heated debates and lots of anger. A hostile crowd confronted the commissioners on the issue three years ago at HCC.

In a series of 3-2 votes, Commissioners Dori Nipps and Jim Kercheval joined Snook in pushing through the historic downzoning for the county. John Munson and William Wivell voted against it.

The downzoning plan, especially the original version, was pretty extreme. For much of the county, where citizens found themselves in the conservation zone, the selling of even one lot was not allowed if you owned fewer than 20 acres.

Even worse, if you found yourself in the preservation district, your hands were tied if you owned fewer than 30 acres of land. In effect, you had absolutely no building or development rights and no means of adjusting for the loss of land values. This was property confiscation without compensation.

When faced with overwhelming public opposition to the new downzoning, the commissioners did what any good political leaders would do. They appointed a committee to look into the matter. They needed to buy some time.

A modified plan mitigating some of the worst effects of the original plan was put in place the following year. From the viewpoint of many landowners, the compensation issue was not and has not been resolved.

In addition, some wonder if the new plan will achieve what its supporters claim. The plan purports to save Washington County farmland. To do this, it was determined that five acres per lot for subdividing would be required in the agricultural district of the county. The old ratio was 1:1. Hence farmland, which the plan is supposed to protect, might now be gobbled up five times faster than before.

The last county election four years ago also saw a radical turnover on the board. This was the race following the implementation of the new Comprehensive Plan for our county. A lot of people saw big trouble then. This probably led to the big turnover in 2002.

Then, as now, one of the incumbents chose not to run. And two sitting commissioners were defeated, resulting in a 60 percent turnover on the board. It is very possible the same thing could happen again by the time the smoke clears in November.

Actually, the field of candidates for the commissioners' race is a strong one. There is one sitting member of the Hagerstown City Council running, two former City Council members, one former County Commissioner, two former members of the Washington County School Board, including the president and The Herald-Mail's Person of the Year. All we need for a song is a partridge in a pear tree. This promises to be quite a race.

The primary election is on Sept. 12. Typically, very few people in our county vote in the primary. They like to wait, I guess, to see how things play out in Round 1 before deciding who to support in the general election. Unfortunately, 14 of the 24 candidates will be eliminated in the first round.

This is a wide-open race. If you like political handicapping, it doesn't get any better than this.

George Michael is a Williamsport resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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