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Politics, public service and the difference

August 06, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

In every election year, I try to review all or most of the stories written during the previous four years about the Washington County Commissioners.

Part of the reason is that the county board was my first "beat" when I was hired in 1973. But I can also justify my close interest because more than any other local elected body, the commissioners can affect life here for good or ill.

For example, consider that when mortgage interest rates soared in the early 1980s, a previous county board issued $9 million in bonds to fund a program to allow 150 people to become homeowners.

The current board has talked about affordable housing, but aside from a study, I haven't seen much forward progress.

The other thing that I realized as I began reading stories about the current board in 2002 was that there are politicians and there are public servants. Sometimes you get both in one package, but not often.

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Those who do the real grunt work of government don't always care for the self-promotion that comes with politics.

A resentment of that part of public life can develop, as an elected official realizes that most citizens don't want to hear about the complications of an issue. Many countians prefer to believe that there are simple answers to the problems that face this area.

That's why, despite the fact that there is an almost built-in adversarial relationship between the press and office-holders, many elected officials enjoy chatting with reporters.

Why? Because journalists are among the few people they meet who want to learn about obscure things such as "biological oxygen demand."

(It's a measure of the oxygen used to decompose organic waste, which is important to sewer capacity and economic development. See, you're already dozing off.)

The temptation for some elected officials, or candidates, for that matter, is to claim that there are easy answers to all of the problems we face.

No doubt during the campaign you will hear that "we have to stop runaway growth" with more restrictions on development. But what about those who've purchased land as an investment? Would telling them that their investment is worthless be fair?

(Some will argue that the recent update of the county's comprehensive plan did just that. But, lucky for the landowners, property prices began going up at just about the same time. You may be able to sell fewer lots, but as one member of the committee that studied affordable housing told me, the average one-acre lot in this county now tops $100,000.)

Another one you're likely to hear is that all the police in the county should be under one agency. It probably makes sense, except that in places where city and county governments have merged, the merger of police departments has always been the most contentious issue.

And what about those situations in which an officer is accused of serious misconduct? Should that officer be investigated by his or her colleagues, or should the probe be done by officers from another department?

All of these things can be worked out, but this is not a dictatorship under which opposing views can be dismissed. If it were, the concerns of the opponents of the Washington County Hospital's move would have been swept under the rug long ago.

Have I made my point about the difference between political posturing and truly functioning as an elected official?

If not, let me try with a couple of real live examples - Washington County Commissioner John Munson and Hagerstown Councilman Kristin Aleshire.

Munson is the better politician, but I would argue that Aleshire is the better public servant.

(My intent is not to bash Munson, because I don't want to create a sympathetic backlash for him. But he chose the spotlight and the things he's said - abolish the public schools, shut down the bus system - have all been on the record.

You may remember that Munson campaigned on the idea that a raise the commissioners were due to get was too generous.

In a Sept. 8, 2002 letter to the editor, Munson said that "If we are to eliminate the debt, we need to start with the county commissioners so if elected, in the very first commissioners' meeting, I will propose that all five commissioners not accept the $10,000 raise that has been given to them. This would be a $50,000 savings to the county right off the bat."

But after he was elected, he reconsidered, saying there was more work involved than he had thought there would be.

In contrast to that is Aleshire, who has donated all of his council salary to various nonprofits. Have you ever seen a letter from any recipient of the cash thanking him for it? You can be sure there are some who wouldn't do that unless the recipients promised in advance to acknowledge the generosity.

Aleshire finds self-promotion of that sort distasteful. And so, despite the fact that he was a key player in the settlement that resulted in $6 million in state money for the Edgewood Drive/U.S. 40 intersection, he will likely get little credit for that work.

Instead of offering easy answers that make good sound bites - such as "Cut the waste" - Aleshire takes time off from his job each year to review the city budget line by line.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advised his followers "not to hide their light under a bushel."

What he meant was not to conceal one's faith, but according to The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 2002 edition, it is now often used to advise people against concealing their talents or abilities.

In other words, modesty may be good for the individual, but not if it prevents us from deciding who has the style and who has the substance.

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