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Letters to the Editor

July 31, 2010

It's somebody else's turn to write about politics, public service



To the editor:

This past March, while I worked as a volunteer at a large YMCA fundraiser, a business leader came up to me and told me that he hadn't always liked the stuff I had written for the editorial page, but that lately my work had greatly improved.

Since I've been retired for many months now, this amused me. But then I began to feel some regret; I was getting praise I didn't deserve for someone else's work. And he wasn't the first one to miss the reports of my departure.

So, in the interest of fairness and accuracy, yes, I have retired, after 35 years at The Herald-Mail. Since I left, I've done some free-lance writing, performed in a musical at Frederick's Weinberg Center (in a part about 75 seconds long) and have continued to do volunteer work.

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Some people who do know I've retired have asked me why I don't continue to write political commentary. There are several reasons.

In Washington County, we citizens have long held our local elected leaders too much in awe, failing to offer them constructive criticism when they need it. It would be better we treated them like the public servants they are, or better yet, like professional athletes.

Imagine, for example, if year after year, a pitcher ended the season with excuses about how unfair the team's opponents were and how they wouldn't give him a break. Would he be re-signed, sent back to the minors or kicked out of baseball altogether? And yet we as citizens buy the excuses again and again and sing up the unsuccessful office-holder for another term.

And if, like a clumsy shortstop, an elected official stakes his reputation on being a budget hawk, but never seems to win support for enough cuts to produce a major tax cut, why don't we ever conclude, like an MLB general manager, that you can only give a player so many chances?

Do you get the benefit of the doubt repeatedly if you don't perform well in your job? Then why do we keep giving it to our elected officials? Treating them respectfully for the difficult jobs they do is one thing; ignoring their failure to produce year after year is another. It's an attitude I couldn't change in a generation.

To be completely fair, success in public service, as opposed to politics, is not as easy to see as a home run or a flashy double-play. Public service success, in baseball terms, requires a whole group of people to push a 2-ton ball across the outfield, then over the center-field wall and into the stands. And then it's not always appreciated. The idea of zoning, for example, was denounced when first proposed here, but the idea of repealing it now would spark a citizen protest.

The decline of news readership is another problem, chronicled in many books. The issues that face Washington County are complex, yet few people will wade through the thousands-of-words articles such issues would require. To engage citizens, it would take a "60 Minutes" type examination of problems such as job development, downtown revitalization and the benefits of merging Hagerstown and Washington County government departments.

And who would sponsor such an enterprise, which would not be cheap and which no one could guarantee would not be spurned in favor of the latest reality show?

Finally, to do good commentary, you need to talk to both the newsmakers and the people covering the news. Reporters don't have time to brief private citizens like me on what they're doing -- and probably little inclination to do so, really. And why should elected officials explain their actions in detail to me, with no assurance that such explanations would find their way into print or that they would be seeing their "no comment" featured if they stonewalled?

Those are major obstacles to doing a good job. Writers who don't talk to the people they write about are like the old-timers who solve the world's problems every morning in the coffee shop. They have a point of view, but not necessarily one that includes all of the facts.

And so, I want to thank all of the people I worked with over the past 35 years, especially my colleagues, those who spoke to me when they didn't have to and those who read my stuff on a regular basis. I may write about some other things, but probably not politics and public service. It's somebody else's turn.

Bob Maginnis
Smithsburg




Government funds shouldn't pay for primary elections



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