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Watchdogs who go too far end up crippling their causes

November 04, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

There was so little dissension on the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Commission in the early 1980s that it once went nearly an entire term without a single opposing vote. Everything passed 3-0.

In Jefferson County today, there is so much dissension that commissioners are floating the idea of removing one of their rabble-rousing own from the bench.

Which is worse? I'd suggest the blanket unanimity.

Easy for me to say. I don't have to live with Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp on a daily basis, as do his four colleagues. I don't have to explain his actions or clarify his alleged outrageous comments.

Surkamp has mixed it up with just about every county official this side of the firehouse Dalmatian in the name of exposing bad government (his view) or tilting at windmills (the remaining commissioners' view).

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He's hounded bureaucrats, some with long and loyal service, who may or may not been in need of hounding. Most recently, an assistant prosecutor advising the commission washed her hands of Surkamp and asked to be reassigned.

One commissioner likened Surkamp to a rebellious toddler in need of a "time out." Another compared him to a "muddy puddle" soiling everyone he came in contact with.

Commissioners demanded Surkamp apologize to the attorney, an act of contrition Surkamp managed to avoid. "I don't believe staff is meeting our requirements," he shrugged.

Surkamp has been accused of playing fast and loose with the facts, a charge he sidesteps. If a bit of hyperbole is needed to get the public's attention and right a wrong, so be it, he seems to believe.

In the incident involving the assistant prosecutor, Surkamp accused her of a deliberate delay of a contract review that wound up costing the county $1 million in increased costs. Problem was, the attorney apparently wasn't the problem.

For Surkamp, that doesn't mean that someone wasn't the problem and there are still hard questions to be asked. If there's a little collateral damage, so what?

So this. "That was the end for me," said Commissioner Greg Corliss. Corliss wants the county to investigate the procedure for removing a commissioner from office. Even if it never comes to that, Corliss believes this Sword of Damocles may temper Surkamp's temper.

Jim Surkamp is a smart man. How much of his act is a lack of self-control and how much is cool calculation designed for effect is difficult to say. The person who is most pleased about the effort to remove Surkamp may be Surkamp. Attention can drive agendas.

There's something admirable about a watchdog and something borderline heroic about someone who enters elected office and refuses to go with the flow.

I can't count the number of sharp contrarians I've seen who ask good, hard questions when they're running for office, but then become lapdogs once they attain office.

There's not a government alive that couldn't benefit from a good cage rattling. And the people are better served with a Surkamp on board and a divided commission than they are by a united commission that avoids conflict by hashing out the issues in secret and assembling in public to cast a united vote with little debate.

I'll give Surkamp all that.

But I can't take his side.

Public people should realize that a line exists that, when crossed, causes your objectives more harm than good. I agree with pretty much everything Larry Flynt has ever said about freedom of speech. And it makes me cringe because he is, well, Larry Flynt.

And how many people who support Surkamp's politics cringe to find out they are on the same side. More than a few, I would bet. That's when you know it's time to tone it down, not just for yourself, but for the issues that you believe are important.

It's a boy crying wolf situation, and it has to be asked: Even if Surkamp were to come up with a Very Good Idea for county government, would anyone else on the commission go along with him at this point? Or are his bridges burned and his effectiveness along with them?

Commission President Frances Morgan, bless her heart, seems to have the best handle on the situation, as she tries to guide this leaky ship.

Acknowledging "a lot of bruised feelings" in the county, she is nevertheless dubious of giving the problem child more attention through perusal of the removal process. You make it through the rapids and paddle on, hoping that one day a safe port will present itself.

Such a port would look like this: Surkamp continues his contrarian journey, but keeps the aggression meter pegged at "testy," rather than "ballistic." His fellow commissioners hear him out - in stony silence if need be - without taking the bait. Clarifications, if need be, can be issued at some later point.

This is easier said than done, perhaps, but it would at least save on the blood pressure medication. And most important, it would be best for the people of Jefferson County who - lest they be forgotten in all this drama - are the ones the commissioners, all five of them, are elected to represent.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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