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Spence Perry: Political cartoonist would have had a field day with current-day local politics

October 11, 2012|By SPENCE PERRY

Where is Thomas Nast when you need him?

The great, late-19th century political cartoonist (who began Boss Tweed’s demise in New York City with humor) would have had a field day in Washington County these last few months.

We’ve had magical increases in school site property values, a ballpark springing like a deadly mushroom amid downtown concrete (with an appearing and then disappearing donor) and a high-tech industrial park offering jobs normally found only in the shadow of one or more front-time research universities.

Nast would have had a truly wonderful time. There would have been editorial cartoons showing the Hagerstown skyline with dark clouds hovering above labeled “corruption.” There would have been pictures of clustered conspirators in plaid pants with diamond stick pins in coat lapels, shirts badly in need of a laundry and stogies in hand.

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What appears to have happened is a serious erosion of public spirit and ethical standards. The behavior that has triggered a sense of illness on the part of many ordinary citizens seems to be a product of several sad trends. First to mind comes the seductiveness of Washington County in both its public and so-called private sectors.

Most of the important business of local government begins in closed working sessions of the city council, the county commissioners, the school board and the economic development commission. Here, ideas germinate and develop the irresistible traction that will carry them to passage. Ideas not developing speed in these sheltered quarters generally do not see the light of day. It is here that real government takes place.

The same is true to an even greater degree among the boards of the county’s private institutions. Meritus Medical Center, Hagerstown Community College, CHIEF and the county’s volunteer fire companies all conduct much of their business in private session.

No doubt the privacy sought by these organizations and others does not originate in a private past. But today, all of these organizations operate with public money and involve themselves in the lives of thousands of citizens from Washington County and the rest of the Tri-State area.

They are public indeed.

Secrecy in government is almost always a negative force. A full range of views is often not considered, groups with legitimate but dissenting concerns are excluded and full discussion is unlikely. It is less hazardous to pick the easy or accommodating way.

Thus we have the secret of confidential aspects of the school land deal; the mysterious and secret private contributor to the stadium project; the less-than-clear birth and growth of Mount Aetna farms; and the continuing problems of the fire companies.

One concludes that in Washington County, one should not only not give a sucker an even break, one should not tell the innocent citizen what is about to happen to him.

Another contributor to the sad, but laughable state of affairs is a serious change in the standard for public conduct. In recent years, there has been a major change in American attitudes toward the rules that govern society. The notion that barely meeting the letter of the law is an acceptable level of public and private conduct that is new to America.

For most of our history, there has been a margin between the legal minimum and the socially desirable, and the later standard was what gave one admission to the company of honorable men and women. The margin is gone, the legal minimum is what the smart money does and this is increasingly admired.

By this standard, much of what is decried in all the projects I have mentioned becomes acceptable, if not laughable.

There is hope. We have lived through periods of low public behavior standards before and recovered our compass. Nast, for example, lived to see a vastly improved New York City.

To the extent that “punch bowl” prosperity leads to the decay of public standards, we have had a long and perhaps useful period of austerity in which to reflect and lay the foundation for a better standard to come.

Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.
  
 

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