Meeting in secret was a bad idea

January 14, 2012

Hagerstown and its environs have from time to time been accused, with varying degrees of validity, of having a shadow government that forms policy and makes decisions behind the scenes, and then tells local elected boards what to do.

Community movers and shakers understandably take great offense at this theory, but if you’re battling a stereotype, it doesn’t help to organize a secret meeting at Fountain Head Country Club.

It was there that Del. John Donoghue, with the help of former Del. Bruce Poole, met with community leaders both elected and nonelected to talk strategy over the upcoming gasoline-tax debate, a possible relocation of the school system’s central offices and who knows what else.

While not in violation of public meeting law, the event was significant enough to attract representatives from City Hall, the School Board, Hagerstown Community College and at least two private business groups.

Donoghue represented the meeting as a quick huddle to make sure all local boards were on the same page, before the debate moves to Annapolis.

The overriding sense is that the General Assembly will pass a gas-tax hike this session, and we can either support the tax and get a share of the revenue, or oppose the tax and be left behind.

This is a simple and obvious characterization of the issue, and on that point we agree with those who organized the meeting. But we must disagree with their method.

We suspect that the meeting was held behind closed doors because no one in a position of accountability wants to be heard saying anything that could be construed as being in favor of the gas tax.

But that attitude accentuates the problem. In fact, no one favors a gas tax. But neither do we favor potholes, broken shocks, traffic jams or dangerous bridges. So the question becomes, how do we pay for essential highway projects — and the answer on the table at the moment is by raising the gas tax.

Rather than hide from the issue, we wish our leaders, if that in truth they be, would come out from behind the country club doors and make the case to the people of Washington County.

This group is engaged in important work, but when it meets privately it gives us the impression that its membership believes that we are such children that we can’t possibly understand the nuance of public policy.

We give the people of the community more credit for being able to see the situation for what it is: If our lawmakers wage a holy war against the gas tax, not only will motorists in this county have to pay the higher tax anyway, but all of Washington County’s tax revenues will be spent in other parts of the state.

That’s a crucial message, and we need people in this community who will stand out in the open and say it. By meeting in secret, the community will be encouraged to believe that this is just another example of Hagerstown’s shadow government cramming decisions down our throats without the consent of the governed.

Donoghue promises that any future meeting on the issue will be open. Either that means that he understands that open is better, or it means that no future meetings on the subject are planned. We hope it’s the former.

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