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City elections not the main point

February 01, 2009|By TIM ROWLAND

Paul Muldowney, who has a nose for nonsense like no other, may or may not feel good about his dust-up with the Hagerstown City Hall this week.

After all, baiting this council into flighty behavior is like shooting fish in a barrel.

At this week's city meeting, the irascible former state delegate called the Hagerstown City Council's decision-making abilities "poor, insincere, disingenuous and short-sighted."

For some reason, the media treated this information as if it were news.

The council treated this information with a dramatic indignation worthy of a scorned housewife. The normally level-headed (for this council, at any rate) Lew Metzner showed signs of suffering from creeping Pennyism by angrily storming from the council chambers.

By impugning the council, Metzner said Muldowney was actually impugning a committee that makes recommendations to the council -- but whose advice the council is not bound to follow.

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Muldowney, whose assets do not include the ability to back down from a fight, gloated at Metzner's exit, saying he had the councilman "backed into a corner."

Metzner said this remark was not deserving of a response.

Following the confrontation, the council quickly adjourned, to which Muldowney threw in one last barb: "That's a solution."

All right, some ground rules: This city is lucky to have Lew Metzner as a council member. The number of times he has saved the council from itself are too numerous to mention. It should also be said that the issue Muldowney and Metzner were locking horns over -- the city's election date -- is the least of Hagerstown's problems at the moment.

Like many municipalities, Hagerstown holds its elections on a day when nothing else is decided at the polls. That would be fine, except it has its not-insignificant costs. If the practice continues, it may cost taxpayers $125,000, according to the city election board, of which Muldowney is a member. The schools take a dim view as well, because as it stands, the city elections interfere with a school day.

Actually, opposing standardized elections is one of the smartest things this council has done. At least it is for sitting council members. What amounts to a special election for the council has all the attributes of a wedding: friends and family only. Lowering the vote count insures that the votes of one's constituents carry more weight.

What the city says it wants to avoid is this: Say the city had held its election last November. A voter might have come to the polls to vote for John McCain. That voter might have known nothing about city council candidates, but have felt compelled to vote for someone. This, the council says, would amount to an uninformed choice.

But that slim hair of a point gets clipped by this argument: A Hagerstown resident might have a generally positive or negative view of the direction in which the city is headed. If it is negative, that voter will vote against incumbents. That should be the right of every Hagerstown voter. You don't need to know a council member's shoe size to cast a reasonably intelligent vote.

Special election days, whether they be for school levies, slots, home rule or council are -- for better or worse -- a way of stacking the deck.

Throughout history, people have tried to limit turnouts to improve their odds. So maybe the city would like to go back to the days of the poll tax.

I don't know, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this might be the heart of the issue. Whether it's embarrassing traffic stops or televised tirades, this council has made an art of facial egg. You wonder if, in lobbying for special elections, Metzner and Marty Brubaker are in effect trying to avoid being painted with the Clown Council brush.

At least one candidate for City Hall gave this reason for running: He watched the current council on TV and thought to himself, "Yikes!" Safe to say, the higher the turnout, the poorer the incumbents' chances. Walking out of a meeting doesn't exactly add to the community's confidence in this group's ability for rational thought.

Sure, there are other points to be made for moving council election to more traditional election days. The Washington County Commissioner candidates seem to be able to do it without being lost in the flotsam and jetsam of a state or national ticket. And, while $125,000 may not, for government, be a huge sum, what city resident has not been asked to sacrifice in recent months because of hard economic times -- even if it's just one fewer dinner out a month? Does the city spurn sacrifice for the sake of its own comfort?

But the larger issue isn't election days, it is this council's ability to behave. This isn't about elections as much as it's about the council's talent, or lack of it, to make calm, rational decisions. Muldowney may have taken unfair advantage by goading the council into another one of those prime City Hall Moments for our coffee-table collections, but it is still a point worth noting.

When people start running for council on the platform of "I am capable of acting like an adult," something indeed needs to be changed, no matter when the election is held.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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