Outgoing Franklin County Commissioners talk shop

January 01, 2008|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - Interrupted birthdays, angry Christmas Day calls and firing people are a few of the things Franklin County Commissioners G. Warren Elliott and Cheryl Plummer will not miss when they leave office next week.

This past year, however, Elliott's vacations proved at least as challenging as his job.

On a trip to Canada, he contracted Lyme disease, along with viral meningitis, which left him delirious and with a temperature of 106 degrees at an isolated fishing camp.

He recovered sufficiently after several days to make the 12-hour drive home, but ended up spending four days in Chambersburg Hospital, he said.

It was, Elliott said, the second time he contracted Lyme disease, the first time being in 1998.

On another fishing trip this year, this one to the Juniata River, Elliott had the unsettling experience of discovering the body of a drowned 34-year-old man.


"I believe everything happens for a reason and, had I not been there, it could have been hours, weeks or longer before the young man's body was ever found," Elliott said. "I hope that it brought closure to his family and friends."

Elliott has a gavel that belonged to his late father and congressman, Douglas Elliott, but he never used it during his dozen years as chairman of Franklin County, Pa.'s., Board of County Commissioners.

Through 6,000 votes, 1,200 salary board and 11,000 personnel actions, and more than 1,000 tax appeal hearings, "never once did I feel the need to use a gavel," Elliott said last week.

Part of the credit goes to Andy Griffith, said Elliott, who has images of that actor, along with Don Knotts (Barney Fife) and Ron Howard (Opie Taylor) on a wall in his home. Banging a gavel, he said, never solved anything.

"Andy Griffith, who portrayed Sheriff Andy Taylor, was never forced to use the most obvious tool of his trade, his gun," said Elliott, who looks more like David Niven than the folksy Mayberry lawman. That does not mean there were not raised voices and heated discussions from time to time, just that things never got out of hand, he said.

People do express their anger in other ways.

Once, perhaps by coincidence, Plummer said she and Elliott had outdoor Christmas decorations stolen on the same night. Elliott said his house was vandalized four times, three of them after the county passed an ordinance requiring inmates to pay some of the cost for their jail stays.

The one time they felt concern for their safety was when a disgruntled former employee told someone before a meeting with the board that her boyfriend was armed with a handgun. The commissioners' office has no security, but the sheriff was asked to attend and "the meeting was uneventful," Elliott said.

"Firing people is probably the most difficult thing we have to do," said Plummer. "On the other hand, we've had some wonderful days and they certainly outnumber the bad ones."

Some are obvious, such as the celebration marking 10,000 acres of preserved farmland, Plummer said. The number is now up to about 13,000 acres, said Elliott, who said he plans to continue conservation efforts outside government, perhaps by helping to form a land conservancy or trust.

Other moments are a bit more difficult to define, such as forming the Tuscarora Managed Care Alliance which, Plummer said, "improves the delivery system and the level of services for people with mental health and drug addiction challenges."

"It's a great collaborative venture with Fulton County," Plummer said. "The state wanted to run it for us, but we chose to run it ourselves."

Elliott could not pin down a worst day, but recalled two events early in his first term that made him realize the scope of the job.

"In 48 hours, I learned the county becomes the guardian of people, lots of people," he said.

One day the county became guardian of a 2-year-old girl abused by her parents and the next became guardian to an elderly man abused by his children, he said.

"Those are the kind of things that make you feel like you make a difference in your position," said Plummer, who has spent almost 14 years on the board. She was appointed in 1993, after the death of Commissioner Dennis Zeger, before winning election with Elliott and Commissioner Bob Thomas in 1995.

Both commissioners noted there is an increasing regulatory burden passed down to the county by the state and federal governments. The bureaucracy has changed from the time Elliott served an interim term as commissioner in 1987.

Back then, Commissioners Joe Ausherman, Zeger and he would sign every bill, he said. Now, bills come in by the thousands, Plummer said.

Plummer and Elliott, named Pennsylvania County Commissioners of the Year in 2007, say they look forward to regaining the perks of private citizenship.

"My wife absolutely refuses to take me to Chambersburg Mall," said Elliott.

Getting buttonholed by constituents in public and at home comes with the territory, he said.

Plummer said she will spend more time with her family and Elliott might put out the "Gone Fishin'" sign more often.

Thomas was elected to a fourth term in November, along with rookie commissioners Bob Ziobrowski and David S. Keller. They will be sworn in Friday, and their official first day in office will be Monday, Jan. 7.

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