Public officials follow code of misconduct

April 24, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND


"I don't want employees to be scared of county commissioners."
- Jefferson County (W.Va.) Commissioner Jim Surkamp

You don't? Why not? I thought it was standard procedure for every boss to put the fear of Nancy Grace into the underling. I think it's mentioned in every employee handbook. Somewhere in the back.

If employees do not perform their duties out of fear, what are they supposed to perform them for? Pay? Ha! Detroit already tried that, and you can see where it's gotten the American auto industry.

But apparently tyranny has reached the point in Jefferson County where the prosecuting attorney was instructed to draw up a code of proper conduct for commissioners.


The request was made after Surkamp himself became "verbally aggressive" with the county's maintenance director, according to sheriff's reports. The director said that a commissioner - whom he didn't name when he registered his complaint - got within inches of his face and yelled obscenities.

Big deal. Like that doesn't happen six times in the course of the average Hagerstown City Council meeting.

The reason Surkamp allegedly went full Leona Helmsley on maintenance dude wasn't clear, although - if I may call on my own experiences - it was probably for failing to clean out the gutters.

Whatever, it started a chain reaction, in which another commissioner got mad at Surkamp for getting mad, and then a third commissioner got mad with all the maddening, while a fourth was mad at himself for making madness an agenda item. I think I have that right, although in truth it's like trying to sort out all the enraged complexities of an AS Roma soccer riot.

At the next West Virginia Association of Counties banquet, the table favors won't be magnetic calendars, they'll be anger-management classes.

As mentioned, the incident of governmental road rage didn't sit well with the other commissioners, most notably Commission President Frances Morgan, who said she was "furious" with the whole affair and did not wish to serve as a "den mother" for the rest of the boys.

No doubt. I'm sure Ruth Bader Ginsburg has days like that, too.

But women always seem to fall into that role, don't they? Even in "My Three Sons," they had to write in some chick whose primary role was to step in between Chip and Uncle Charley. (All right, all right, I know - and since I was the one who brought it up, I'll just say that the Hagerstown Council is the exception that proves the rule.)

Morgan had missed the previous week's meeting when the issue was discussed, and confessed to having misgivings about what the commission "was going to get into" when she was gone.

Great. Like she can't even get her oil changed on a Thursday without worrying that when she comes back to the courtroom there will be Whoopie Cushions on the chairs and toilet paper hanging from the chandelier.

I feel for Prosecutor Mike Thompson, too. He's kind of forced to be the hammer. I don't know that he really needed to pen a code book full of good-behavior guidelines. Like the old George Carlin line, maybe Surkamp just needed a good talking to. Sit him down in a chair and say, "Jim? Not funny."

Thompson had to be wondering what things were coming to when he had to officially remind commissioners that they should not "act in an insulting manner" or should not "attempt to injure anyone."

I wish I had a full copy of the guidelines for public meeting decorum, but I don't. Probably goes something like this:

1. The gavel is not to be used to crack the dome of the county planning director.

2. The pledge to the flag should not include the words "or you'll be sorry."

3. Do not bring your dog.

4. The agenda includes "new business" and "old business," but not "giving him the business."

5. The oath of office is not something you shout at the road crew.

You know, just the standard stuff that the average elected official would have no way of knowing without a strong degree of guidance.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

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