EDC chairwoman resigns, citing conflict with new member

November 29, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE |

The chairwoman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission said she resigned earlier this month because “effective progress” was being obstructed by new appointee Ronald Bowers — and county officials refused to remove him from the commission’s board.

Shelby H. Penn resigned as EDC chairwoman effective Nov. 21, according to a copy of the resignation letter Penn said she emailed to each member of the Washington County Board of Commissioners on that date.

“People have their opinions,” Bowers said Tuesday.

Bowers, a former county commissioner, declined further comment, referring questions to acting EDC Chairman Hal Lucas and County Administrator Gregory B. Murray.

“The recent appointees to the EDC board by the county commissioners have created substantial impediments to effective collaboration and have resulted in a hyper-political environment diverting the board and county staff from the primary charge,” Penn wrote to the commissioners.

“As a representative of the business community, I no longer view the interactions of the board as conducive to moving in a positive direction. And, as there appears to be no political will to address the issues despite our best efforts to effect change, I feel I have no other alternative but to resign my appointment as member and Chair of the Commission,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, Penn said it was not all three new EDC appointees, but Bowers, causing the problem.

The county commissioners voted in May to appoint Bowers to a three-year term on the EDC board, effective July 1.

During a break in a meeting Tuesday, several commissioners declined to comment on Penn’s allegations. That group included William B. McKinley and commissioners President Terry Baker, who are ex-officio members of the EDC board.

Penn said that on three separate occasions, from September to early November, she asked McKinley and Baker to consider removing Bowers from the EDC board.

“It’s not about me personally. I butted heads with (Bowers), but he’s butted heads with several (EDC board members and strategic partners) and several (EDC board members and strategic partners) are coming to me as the chair to address the issue,” Penn said Tuesday.

Penn, who became EDC chairwoman on July 1, said Bowers has been overzealous and that the tone of the board meetings since he joined has been more argumentative.

The meetings have been “focused on the wrong things,” Penn said.

Referring to Bowers, Penn said: “They’re focused on pointing fingers at the staff, accusing the staff of not doing their jobs, and that is not the case. We have a very competent staff, and it’s really affecting morale. The frustrating thing is our commissioners’ liaisons are aware of the issues.

“The comments (from McKinley and Baker) have been, ‘His heart’s in the right place. It’s just how he goes about it.’ So I received pretty much justifications and excuses for the bullying and harassing behavior” leveled at EDC board members and staff, Penn said.

Lucas said that both Penn and Bowers care about Washington County and are passionate about wanting to bring business here.

“Sometimes when you bring passionate people together, the methodologies and how you do that don’t always agree,” Lucas said.

What is important isn’t how well people get along, but how to attract and retain businesses bringing jobs to the county, Lucas said.

“It isn’t always easy for people to work in environments where not everyone is sitting in harmony. It doesn’t make them any less capable. It’s just how they work best,” he said.

No formal complaint

The EDC never formally went to the county commissioners about the problem on the board, Lucas said.

McKinley, reached by phone on after a commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, responded, but Baker did not return messages left on his cellphone and work phone.

McKinley said he didn’t want to speak for Baker, but “I believe that neither of us felt that things were so urgent that we would (remove Bowers).”

McKinley said he suspects a request to remove an EDC member must come from the EDC, and he never heard that suggestion from EDC board members other than Penn.

“I know they didn’t see eye to eye,” McKinley said of Penn and Bowers.

“But that’s not grounds to remove him, from my point of view,” he said.

“Ron was at all the economic development meetings. I never saw disruption there. I saw discussion,” McKinley said.

Asked if he had issues with EDC staff, Bowers referred to a comment he made to The Herald-Mail in May after his appointment was announced.

“The luster’s worn off the doorknobs of the EDC office,” Bowers said at the time. He stressed the need for enthusiasm, excitement, eagerness and exhilaration.

“I see an awful lot of progress being made with the EDC. I like the progress I’m seeing now,” Bowers said Tuesday.

That progress includes, among other things, discussions about broadband computer service; meetings about infrastructure and zoning needs; and progress on the EDC’s strategic plan, he said.

Asked if the doorknob quote referred to the EDC staff, Bowers said, “I think staff is too broad of a term.”

Penn thanked

After a request for comment about Penn’s resignation was left for EDC Executive Director Timothy Troxell, county spokeswoman Sarah Lankford Sprecher called to say that she, not Troxell, would comment on the issue.

Sprecher said she had spoken with Murray, who said nothing had been taken to the county commissioners about any EDC board member issues.

When it was pointed out to her that Penn had sent a resignation letter to the county commissioners citing “impediments to effective collaboration” since the new appointees joined the EDC, Sprecher said her earlier comment was based on “information provided to me, in speaking with Greg Murray.”

County officials want to say only, “that we’re sorry to see (Penn) go, and we thank her for her service and her efforts in bettering economic development in Washington County,” Sprecher said.

After Tuesday’s commissioners’ meeting, Murray also reiterated thanks for Penn’s service.

Murray said the county staff and commissioners had not been told by EDC members that there were any problems on the EDC’s board.

Since Penn was nominated to the EDC board by the city of Hagerstown, the city will be asked to make another appointment, Murray said. The county commissioners will decide whether to approve the appointment.

The Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission is a county agency that provides assistance to new and expanding businesses throughout Hagerstown and Washington County, according to information from the EDC.

Staff Writer Andrew Schotz contributed to this story.

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