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City Council makes solid choice with selection of Martin Brubaker

December 10, 2006|by TIM ROWLAND

As he was sworn in as a new Washington County Commissioner, Kristin Aleshire said he was humbled that 18,000 felt him fit to help lead the county. He might be more humbled still if he considered that some people didn't vote for him because they didn't think the Hagerstown City Council could stand the loss.

The former city councilman was considered a stabilizing force on a council that can, from time to time, get a bit out of hand.

Yet voters needn't have worried, since the council made what appears to be a solid choice this week when it appointed Martin Brubaker to take Aleshire's seat.

In yet another example that democracy doesn't work, the City of Hagerstown seems to have better luck with representatives who are appointed rather than elected.

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After former Mayor Dick Trump left the board in a dysfunctional mess, Bob Bruchey stepped in as his appointed replacement and has been successful in at least lowering the council's collective blood pressure a couple of tics.

And several others on the council's short-list for appointment looked eminently qualified as well, most notably Christina Davis and David Gysberts.

A member of planning, water, sewer and housing boards, Brubaker certainly has a deep understanding of the city. Brubaker took a brief run for County Commissioner, but left the race for unspecified personal reasons, which most likely had to do with the political realities of a crowded, and in some cases, well-funded field.

During the campaign, Brubaker made a point of saying he was in no one's pocket and unbeholden to special interests. That's both admirable and problematic.

We don't want our leaders to have well-connected folks pulling their strings, and voting for special interests over the people's interests.

But if you owe one no favors, that means no one is giving you any cash. And without any other asset such as an established family name, that makes it mighty hard to get elected.

It's to the council's credit that it recognized that electability and competence do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Along with being independent, Brubaker also demonstrated healthy and innovative ideas about growth and taxation. He won't be a rubber stamp for developers, but it's doubtful he'll be their enemy. If it's good, well-planned growth, he'll be OK with it, if it's slop, he won't.

Based on his public comments, Brubaker also recognizes that the city's perpetually tight budgets are a revenue problem, not a spending problem. Say what you will about this current council, it is not made up of spendthrifts.

As such, the only way out of the box is to increase revenue, and that does not necessarily have to come through taxation. Fill the empty downtown buildings and raise property values by encouraging home ownership and the revenue problem will take care of itself.

It's here that Brubaker might be able to do the most good, especially if he does not demonstrate some of the xenophobic tendencies of some current council members.

African refugees are not the only ones who might be made to feel unwelcome by the current council. More than one out-of-town developer with plans for Hagerstown improvements has packed up shop and left, thanks to a city that is apathetic at best and hostile at worst.

Developers, being human, want to be shown a little respect, and if they have plans to rehab and occupy downtown buildings, they deserve it. Money is a big motivator, but it's not the only motivator.

Those who might have hung in to weather the current real estate slump had they been treated right, have instead washed their hands of Hagerstown. That's either because they don't like being barked at, or because the city's development policies have been totally devoid of imagination.

If lack of sewer capacity remains the city's biggest problem, image isn't far behind. This isn't just a goofball columnist talking; real people see the problem as well. And these are the people with money and creativity to make things happen here.

The city drove an established business out to Dual Highway because it wouldn't kick in some matching funds for a comprehensive rehab project. The city couldn't wrap its brain around the East End project, and it foundered. A major city developer who has staked his future to a Hagerstown was, instead of being thanked, browbeaten for wanting to host a downtown street fair. Mandalay, owners of the Hagerstown Suns, was prepared for a major investment until it got the cold shoulder from the city.

A little over a year ago, an East Coast consortium of wide-ranging talent met downtown with the idea of making Hagerstown a model for good growth. The council couldn't even be bothered to attend.

These snubs and disinterests add up, and soon you have a regionally bad reputation.

What the council has never understood is that its baseline concerns about crime, gangs, Section 8 families and homeless are all products of an economically uninspired city. Vibrant neighborhoods, shopping and arts districts choke these other problems out.

If Brubaker can help the council recognize this, at least it may be a first step to a return to normalcy.

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