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Delegation needs to get off the sidelines

January 27, 2008|By BOB MAGINNIS

In December, two members of the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly disappointed supporters of home rule charter by saying that they would oppose it.

State Sen. Donald Munson, R-Washington, said charter was "an idea whose time has not yet come."

Del. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, said that charter would upset a good set of checks and balances.

Recently I wrote that the current system allows citizens to get a "do-over" if they don't like what the commissioners have done. Shank said much the same thing in an op-ed he wrote on Friday.

"If citizens don't like the outcome at one level of government, they always have the option to go to another to express their concerns," Shank said.

What about the referendum option under charter? Shank said that the idea of collecting 5,600 valid signatures in 90 days would make challenges to any county council action difficult.

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The problem I have with the point of view espoused by Shank and Munson is that too often it seems that the delegation functions as an appeals court for those displeased by the commissioners' actions.

What the delegation should be doing is working actively with county and municipal officials for the good of all county residents.

That's not happening now. During a recent meeting with the delegation, Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis Metzner complained that the commissioners weren't sharing revenues adequately, even when some of those revenues - such as the hotel/motel tax - are collected within the city limits.

Is Metzner correct? Maybe, yes, maybe no. But no one has convinced him, or me, for that matter, that the county has adequate justification for stonewalling on this issue. Maybe there's a good answer, but I haven't heard one that satisfies me.

The result of this impasse - which might be nothing more than a communication problem, though I doubt it - is that the city and county governments aren't true partners. Wary adversaries would be a more apt description of how they relate.

Concessions on things such as the city's annexation policy are still negotiated on a case-by-case basis. That means industrial prospects must be told that sometime in the future, they might have to pay city taxes, or they might not.

A group of elected officials focused on the best possible outcome would work out a solution, knowing when they began that not everyone would be completely satisfied with the result.

Other examples abound. As nearby Winchester and Frederick County, Va., work on a plan to merge two local governments, Hagerstown and Washington County can't even agree to merge a single department.

Come on. Do city and county elected officials really believe that there is no departmental merger that would save both governments money?

I doubt it. I suspect that the idea of holding on to one's "turf" holds back the exploration of possible mergers.

The most difficult one might be the possible cooperation between city and sewer operations.

In 1997, state officials said that in view of the fact that the city was planning to expand its plant from 8.5 million to 10 million gallons per day while the county's Conococheague plant was using less than half of its 2.5 million per day capacity was a good argument for cooperation.

A year later, Dane Bauer, deputy director of the Maryland Water Management Administration, said that obstacles to cooperation were not technical or financial, but turf protection.

"They almost seem to be competing now. It's going to make more sense if they have a combined plan," Bauer said.

It took until 1999 to reach an agreement to interconnect the two systems, but negotiations went so slowly that by 2003, a $650,000 was in jeopardy because the lack of agreement.

Reading through The Herald-Mail archive on these issues, I am struck by the lack of comment from members of the delegation. Then and now, they tend to stay above the fray, even when their involvement might speed things along.

For example, when the city government was doing battle with the Washington County Hospital, Del. John Donoghue, whose legislative speciality is medical matters said he didn't feel it was his role to intervene.

No one did, and time was lost and probably a couple of million dollars, because the delegate who represents the city didn't feel it was his role to get involved.

This is not to pick on Donoghue, because other delegation members should have spoken up, should have gotten involved and told city officials if they ever wanted another state bond bill approved, they should be more reasonable on the hospital issue.

For the Republican members of the delegation, which is more important: Serving as advocates of their party's policies in Annapolis and playing a rhetorical game of David-and-Goliath with the Democratic governor or getting some of these longstanding problems involved?

In my view, the emphasis should be on solving problems and pushing city and county officials to cooperate on issues that, if solved, would result in better service and lower taxes for Washington County residents.

So Munson and Shank are opposed to the charter, that's OK - as long as they're ready to take a more hands-on approach to important local issues. I await Shank and Munson's pledges to do that with great interest.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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