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Let's trade a crow for a budget hawk

October 08, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

For a long time I have hesitated to write this column about Washington County Commissioner John Munson. This is true for a couple of reasons.

The first is that as a Herald-Mail editorial said a year into his term, his oddball statements had already become so frequent that criticizing them had started to seem about as sporting as shooting a whitetail deer tied to a tree.

The second is that sometimes writing a true story that portrays someone in an unflattering way creates sympathy for that person.

Over the years, I've seen it happen when prominent people have been arrested for driving while intoxicated. Suddenly, it's the newspaper's fault that poor old Smitty (or whatever his name was) has been portrayed in a bad light.

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I may have a harsh view - and it is only my own - but it is one I have come to after re-reading hundreds of stories about Munson in The Herald-Mail archives. There are 582 documents that contain his name, although I will admit that I skipped the Mail Call entries.

My conclusion: Munson does not deserve our sympathy, nor re-election. Nor does he need the money. As a retired employee of the U.S. Postal Service, he will not soon be in line at the food bank for surplus government cheese.

And, in case anyone has forgotten, he was apparently well off enough that he could campaign against the $10,000 raise the commissioners elected in 2002 were due to receive.

But once he was elected, he had second thoughts.

"I should not have said that during the campaign, I guess," Munson said. "There's a lot more to being a County Commissioner" than most people realize, he said.

He declined to give the extra 10 grand to charity, saying he would have to pay taxes on it.

Several times throughout his term he has wavered on the issue, at one point seeking state legislation to reduce the commissioners' pay. That didn't happen because there was no official request to the delegation to do so.

In August 2004, he obtained an Maryland Attorney General's opinion, which said his salary couldn't be lowered during the four-year term. He again declined to give the cash to charity and wouldn't say whether he'd make it an issue if he ran again.

"I might be dead before then," said Munson, then 61. "I might not want to run then."

Guess what? He's running again, and the salary issue has not yet been mentioned.

For someone else, I might be inclined to forgive and forget. Government makes mistakes all the time and not always in the $10,000 range. But what have we gotten for that extra ten grand?

In pre-campaign interviews, Munson said that the Board of Education was top-heavy with administration, but when pressed about where the fat was, said that school parking lots should not be lit all night.

Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan replied that it was for the safety of those who work late, not to mention the protection of valuable computers and the like.

This has been a recurring theme with Munson - this agency or that one is spending too much, but unlike his fellow Commissioner William Wivell, who offers details, Munson has given us few specifics about where all that waste is. The one exception seems to be in those broad categories that relate either to the quality of life or help for the indigent.

In March of 2003, he recommended cutting county contributions to charities for the second time in two years. Targets included charities such as CASA - Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused - and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

He also opposed raises for county employees, saying "everyone in the county is adequately paid." Including those who got $10,000 raises, apparently.

A month later, Munson called for abolishing public schools and giving students vouchers for private schools. How would the changeover be accomplished? Few details were forthcoming.

In October 2003, his target for abolition was the County Commuter bus system, which he said was underused, though system officials said it had about 300,000 riders that year. He backed off a week later, saying that he had "opened my mouth too soon about these buses."

Yes, he did open his mouth too soon - before he had the facts, before he had a clear idea about what would replace buses for elderly who can no longer safely drive or for the working poor who can't afford cars.

That's what we pay the County Commissioners for - to look into the details that the average citizen doesn't have time to, consult with people in the know and propose a plan.

As a sloganeer, Munson has done a fine job of branding himself as a budget hawk. In truth, he is more like a crow, cawing "no new taxes" but doing little to swoop down and sink his talons into the real waste. I have no doubt it's there, but have grave doubts about whether Commissioner Munson will ever be able to find it. Give me a real hawk, please.

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