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As Long as We Remember...

January 5, 2007

Putting Money Where My Mouth Is

Roy Meachum

What made 2006 Frederick County elections different from the others I've covered since 1984 was the concentration on a single subject.

Understand, growth has been around and in ferment before I moved here in 1983; it has added flavor to balloting. We have regularly witnessed the changing of commissioners on four year cycles; the board alternated between pro- and anti-development. That was one reason I long ago supported the hoped-for stabilization that might be produced by charter home rule.

The present system guarantees chaos; it fails to hold elected officials accountable. They easily hide behind each other when the time comes to figure out disasters resulting from monkey wrenches they throw into governmental processes, which inevitably cost taxpayers heavy sugar.

Of the present crop, the most adaptable at the now-you-see-him, now-you-don't is easily John "Lennie" Thompson. The former board president is also the most skilled in branding people and ideas he doesn't like as pro-development, especially when they're not. Memorably his opposition to improving the county's water supply defied the frequent years of drought in recent history. Also he has relentlessly fought improving roads and schools.

Mr. Thompson has pumped up the discomfort level with the intent of hauling up the excuse, used over and over again, that he means to keep newcomers from taking up residence here. Of course, he's failed miserably. The population leaped almost 37 percent from 1992 until 2005. On a constant basis, since 1966, the compounded annual local growth has been 2.5 percent.

In the first five years of the new century, while Mr. Thompson was playing ferocious watchdog, the county added 13 percent to its already swollen body count. For most of that time, he wielded the powers of president, a post he held 2002-06. The millennium's first years he took up the gavel fumbled regularly by David Gray.

That may not be fair; it insinuates Mr. Gray didn't know what he was doing. Evidence says otherwise. He has demonstrated he simply does not want the authority and responsibilities. Elected again to the top chair last fall, he couldn't dump the office fast enough, even if it meant betraying his Republican Party and forcing a rule change.

Mr. Gray cemented the anti-growth coalition by scurrying to hand the job to Jan Gardner, a Democrat who received the most votes in November. Barely managing to scrape back into office, Mr. Thompson was the absolutely lowest man on the elected totem pole.

The rule is in the process of change, from the candidate with the higher number of fellow party members among the board's majority to the one who gets the most support. Period. As a commissioner who helped write that specification, in 1982, Anita Stup explained the reasoning was to get parties involved in rounding up participation in the county elections.

What I find thoroughly confusing among the present members is the contradictions on the growth issue. Mrs. Gardner lives in the largest development; her house must have been fairly new when she moved in. Whatever her political rhetoric, she endorsed with her family cash the building of Spring Ridge, which sprawls all over the city's eastern fringe.

How she now manages to preach against growth can be explained in friend George Delaplaine's wise observation about those who move here and then want "to pull up the moat after them." Based on serious studies, dating back to 1966, Mr. Delaplaine has graphs demonstrating the county has consistently grown by 2.5 percent compounded. He makes the point it would take a major miracle or serious shift in natural phenomenon to arrest that steady advance in population.

Mr. Gray belongs in a different pew than Mrs. Gardiner but in the same category of mouthing anti-growth platitudes, as I wrote on before the last election. Taking advantage of his decision not to seek re-election as a commissioner in 2002, he quietly divided property into four lots; one he kept and the other three were sold for a reported $450,000 to a company that stuck up houses before peddling them to new owners.

The wildest apology I heard put forth ran along the lines that it was Mr. Gray's real estate and he could dispose of it as he wanted. However, the commissioner and his fellow no-growthers attack farmers and other property owners when they attempt to do the same. Fair does not seem to be fair in those circles. As far as I can see, the doubly ex-commissioners president approved his personal profit while denouncing all his fellow developers.

New board member Kai Hagen comes announced as an environmentalist, who was not above building a new house for his family to live in. He's a fine specimen to illustrate Mr. Delaplaine's admonition about "pulling up the moat." He built his new residence on undeveloped property; but now he wants to deny other folks the right to do the same.

As Mr. Hagen, who moved here more than 10 years after the Meachums came up from Bethesda, I like old houses, which is why I've bought and restored three since 1983. My first home was the product of the post-Civil War migrations, the second was an 1847 farm house, and I live now in what started out as an 18th century log cabin, on North Market Street. The walls in the older part of the house look to be about a foot thick: brick-covered logs with plaster on the inside.

I don't understand how folks building new houses around the county can claim they care so much about the rate of development. They're doing it. And I think they have a right, subject to rules and regulations.

Unlike Mr. Thompson's draconian approach, I believe government has a responsibility to provide and update basic facilities: roads, water and schools. I have been freshly aware, however, that politicians will grab any issue that comes to hand in order to get power.

We call this demagoguery. Huey P. Long and Adolph Hitler were demagogues who told people what they wanted to hear; they built their reputation on convenient untruths. Frederick politicians who tell voters they can stop growth belong in the same category. If they think they're speaking the truth, they deal in ignorance, at best, and lies, at worst.

This area was once thick with Native Americans whose initial hospitality turned hostile when the refugees from Europe and large seaboard cities kept pouring in. In the end, the Indians had to flee because they refused to make accommodation with the newcomers. Lennie Thompson advocates that failed strategy now.

This is a simple fact that cannot be avoided.

If politicians will be politicians - that's how they are - I regret and resent sniveling journalists who encourage them. But these practitioners of my trade generally live in developments themselves, which make their hypocrisy and professional dishonesty more detestable.

When it comes to protecting the qualities of Frederick that first attracted me here, I have put my money where my mouth is. It's that simple, and obviously that complex and uncomfortable for others.

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