November CAP Meeting: Keller & Gysberts Say County Needs “Vision”

Many thanks to Hagerstown City Councilwoman Emily Keller and former Hagerstown Mayor David Gysberts for joining us at our November 27 meeting in Boonsboro. In conversation with CAP’s own Chip Cook, Keller and Gysberts discussed the qualities that make a good local politician, the relationship between the City of Hagerstown and the rest of Washington County, the opioid crisis, and their priorities as politicians and as citizens.

Gysberts said that, as a politician, “you have to have something you’re for, not just something you’re against… a vision for where you want your community to go.” He emphasized the importance of fiscal responsibility in achieving that vision. “Budgets are a reflection of… values and priorities,” he said, and it’s the job of the mayor and the council to guide municipal spending in a way that reflects and supports those values and priorities.

Keller talked about the importance of connecting with constituents and trying to stand in their shoes. She recalled doing a ride-along with each city department when she was first elected last year. She spoke of the experience as fun but eye-opening. “How can I make a good decision about what the police need if I haven’t seen what they really do?” she asked. A council member needs to talk to all stakeholders in order to figure out the impact that a decision will have on varied constituencies. She admitted that the job is more time-consuming than she had anticipated, but it’s work that “has to be done. I just drag my daughter along with me,” she said with a smile. An engaged citizen from a young age!

Both speakers reiterated the need to “put in the time” and “do your homework,” themes that emerged during former County Administrator Greg Murray’s visit at our October meeting. Both also decried the lack of action from the County Commissioners on the opioid epidemic facing not just Hagerstown but all of Washington County and, indeed, the entire country. It’s not simply that the commissioners are not dealing with the problem, they said, but that they seem to not even realize a problem exists.

Gysberts recalled a current commissioner remarking at the opening ceremony for the new Washington County Free Library building that it was “the biggest, most expensive homeless shelter we could have built.” It is exactly this kind of dismissive attitude toward fellow citizens that Citizens Above Partisanship seeks to remove from county politics. We thank Keller and Gysberts for their time spent helping us understand how we might best go about doing that.

Greg Murray Speaks on the Responsibilities of County Commissioners

Former Washington County Administrator Greg Murray spoke at the October 30 Citizens Above Partisanship meeting. Murray retired in June amid what has unfortunately become typical ineptitude from our County Commissioners. His remarks addressed his understanding, based on 35 years of experience, of the qualities a good Commissioner should possess.

In addition to the necessity of understanding the duties and responsibilities of the office, Murray spoke of the substantial time commitment needed to prepare for meetings, work with other parts of county government, and learn about issues facing the community. A good Commissioner spends time with his or her constituents, discusses questions and concerns with county staff, and is prepared to discuss decisions in public session.

Murray stressed that understanding the financial and human resources implications of decisions is a critical part of each Commissioner’s job. He pointed out that credit rating agencies on Wall Street pay attention to what happens in Washington County, and that rash decision-making can have far-reaching negative consequences.

“A Commissioner has a sworn duty to work for the betterment of the County,” he said, and must set aside “personal agendas, favoritism, and ego… when elected to the Board.” He acknowledged that the office requires sacrifice, but stressed that “sound decision making, tempered with empathy, is critical to the success of the organization and the community the Commissioners serve.”

Murray’s remarks will be important as CAP prepares to put together a job description outlining what we expect from candidates for County Commissioner who want our support in the 2018 election.

 

Healthy Democracy

We introduced ourselves to Washington County in a letter to the Herald Mail on October 14. You can read it here. Or you can read the unedited version:

One day not long after the most recent presidential inauguration, two friends bumped into each other at the grocery store. Over the apples, they talked of their shared despair at the state of political discourse in our country, and of their shared desire to do something – anything, really – to raise the level of that discourse. Raising it at the national level seemed an impossible task, but perhaps something could be done to raise it here at home, in Washington County. There was a time in the not-too-distant past that they both remembered fondly, when people of all political stripes would work together to make our county a pleasant place for everyone who lives here. They looked at the current state of county and municipal governments and no longer saw that cooperation across differences, and they wondered if they could bring it back.

They went home and called a few friends who they knew shared these concerns. These friends were themselves from all over the political spectrum, but they shared a desire to see rationality and civility return to politics. The friends were interested.

So one night in March, they all got together for a glass of wine and a chat. There were over a dozen of them. They talked about how best to achieve this goal of rationality and civility in politics, and they agreed that something more than wine and chatting (pleasant though that is) was called for. Something organized. An organization.

Over the next six months, they met monthly, rotating among the homes of the members. New people joined the group, friends and neighbors who had heard about the work the new organization was planning and wanted to be part of it. By August, the group numbered about 50, and it had a name: Citizens Above Partisanship. In early September, it became a registered political action committee with the State of Maryland.

Citizens Above Partisanship (CAP) is a diverse, nonpartisan, grassroots coalition of Washington County residents who are committed to working across political differences to do the difficult, messy work necessary to support a healthy democracy that serves the needs of all its members.

We value civility, collaboration, and compromise.

We prioritize ethics, education, and the economy.

We believe in facts and the unbiased interpretation of facts.

We believe that rational people can disagree rationally, and that such disagreement is a necessary part of a participatory democracy.

We believe that people are individuals and should be treated as such.

We insist on real conversation about real issues and reject antagonism and posturing from all perspectives.

We strive to listen to what people are actually saying, rather than hearing what we expect them to say.

We work together to identify obstacles to political cooperation in Washington County and remove them.

We provide opportunities for rational people from all viewpoints to work together in pursuit of policies and practices in line with our values and beliefs.

We support qualified candidates for local office who support those values and beliefs, both in their campaigns and in their work once elected.

And we act as a watchdog to call out threats to and breaches of those values and beliefs.

Democracy takes work. Will you join us?