John League: The government we deserve?

August 18, 2013|By JOHN LEAGUE

A classic scene in the movie “Network” has one of the key characters, a mentally unstable TV anchor named Howard Beale, flying off the handle during a newscast.

Fed up with the current state of affairs, Beale reaches a breaking point, going on a tirade against the powers that be, exhorting his viewers to begin screaming, “We’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.”

The movie cuts to scenes across America where citizens throw open their windows, following the anchor’s lead, and begin to pour out their frustrations at the top of their lungs.

If I’m gauging the sentiment of our community correctly, I believe Hagerstown may be ready for its Howard Beale moment.

I’ve lived in Washington County for 18 years, and before retiring, had worked in Hagerstown since 1981. I frequently visited Hagerstown — a hot date was a movie at Long Meadow Shopping Center — since I was a kid. The nature of my job — as a Herald-Mail reporter, editor and publisher — required me to keep up with community events.

I’ve grown to love Hagerstown and Washington County. The community has been good to my family and me. But over the years, like a family member might, it’s repeatedly broken my heart and frustrated me, but mostly left me scratching my head in bewilderment.

In the late 1980s and into 1990, I watched as the city courted the Rouse Company, the preeminent urban developer of the time. Rouse planned and developed Baltimore’s Harborplace, New York’s South Street Seaport and many other urban renaissance projects across the United States.

Rouse designed a plan for a modern retail center at the site of Hagerstown’s municipal golf course in the city’s East End off Dual Highway. The city course was no longer needed because Black Rock, the county-owned course, was being built.

The mayor and majority of city leaders backed the Rouse plan until the mayor, urged on by a small group of golfers, switched his position and began opposing the plan with the same energy he once championed it.

The mayor was re-elected, along with a new council, and a perfect 180-degree turn was completed: The city told the developers to get lost. The company packed its bags and left town. The municipal golf course lives on, a prime piece of real estate off the tax rolls and, I imagine, its operation is heavily subsidized by Hagerstown taxpayers, most of whom don’t play golf.

Flash forward to this year: D. Bruce Poole, a former House of Delegates member and a local attorney, takes the initiative to bring a private development group to Hagers-town with an ambitious plan to revitalize Hagerstown’s rapidly decaying — some say dying — downtown core.

The mayor and council flirted with the plan, talked a good game for a few weeks, and then effectively told Sora Development and Poole to get lost.

For the past two years, we’ve watched two dramas involving the Hagerstown Suns. The first is between the city and the Suns, whose ownership is demanding a new stadium here. The second is between Hagerstown and two cities in Virginia, Winchester and Fredericksburg, which have at various times made pitches to have the Suns relocate to their communities.

While a majority of the council and mayor say they want to see the Suns remain in the city, they have not settled on a site for a new stadium, and they have not offered a recent proposal — or at least a public proposal — to Suns owner Bruce Quinn.

A city councilman said the mayor and council have not discussed the Suns and the stadium in either an open or closed session since this spring, according to the Thursday, Aug. 15, edition of The Herald-Mail.

The stadium is the No. 1 issue on the city’s agenda, and has been for the past two years, yet our council can’t find the time to discuss it? Whether you support or oppose the stadium, a passive-aggressive approach to community leadership is appalling.

Can’t someone do something, and either get the project going or have the political courage to kill it and move on to something else? (Unfortunately for the city, there isn’t much else on the drawing board, at least as far as downtown is concerned.)

Jack Germond, the curmudgeonly but brilliant former political columnist and pundit, died this week. His obituary included a passage from one of his books. It was that from the highest office of the presidency, to the lowest office like that of a small town council member, Americans get the government they deserve.

I wonder if the citizenry of Hagerstown and Washington County would agree with him.

John League is a former editor and publisher of The Herald-Mail.

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