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Advertise on the Tentacle

May 28, 2007

Failure to Communicate

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The warden in Cool Hand Luke summed it up nicely when he said: "What we have here is - failure to communicate".

Recently, the county commissioners decided to modify a staff draft of the Triennial Water/Sewer Master Plan; not "War and Peace," but still one of the guiding planning documents for determining the adequacy of our infrastructure.

Whenever a municipal development project seeks to move forward, one of the steps in the process is obtaining approval from the commissioners for a map amendment to the Water/Sewer Master Plan.

Annexations have been in the news a lot lately. First, the commissioners and the elected officials from the Town of New Market engaged in a battle of heated rhetoric over a large annexation. Up north in Thurmont, Mayor Marty Burns and Commissioner Kai Hagen, who lives near the town, had their own back-and-forth over annexation.

On the question of water and sewer capacity, Commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson has always suspected (and often accused) local elected officials of misrepresenting the adequacy of their own systems. For years, the Town of Middletown has been the subject of the commissioner's wrath, every time the subject of water comes up; Lennie rolls his eyes and accuses town officials of being less than honest.

If this were just Lennie being Lennie, no one would be surprised. In the commissioner's defense, even the state environment department had raised questions about the water production capability of the town and placed a mandated moratorium on the issuance of new water system connections.

Town officials have been critical of the Maryland Department of The Environment's involvement, accusing the agency of shifting the requirements while the town was actually trying to comply. It does seem unfair to shift the regulatory requirement midstream (pun intended).

Seems like scant comfort for current and future town residents worried about what happens when they turn the tap, though. That seems like a one-time crisis, the kind you only want to happen one time.

These disagreements have led the current Board of County Commissioners to adopt a draconian form of communication quality control. From now on, when municipal officials submit testimony as a part of the water/sewer map amendment process, they will be required to submit that input under oath.

So, the commissioners now want an oath, the old standard about taking a fellow elected official at his(her) word no longer cuts the mustard. So, several times a year, mayors and burgesses will either have to take an oath prior to testimony or obtain an affidavit affirming their truthfulness to petition the commissioners on the water and sewer plan.

The commissioner's logic is this: If municipal officials are forced to take an oath, and can be held legally to account for having taken that oath, then they will be more careful about what they say.

Two problems:

  1. Burgess Don Trimmer of Woodsboro isn't comfortable making assertions under oath about water capacity, since the town water supply comes from an underground aquifer. Burgess Trimmer seems hesitant to commit, under oath, to an adequacy/capacity for an unseen flow of water. Woodsboro may need that water capacity report from a higher source, if you get the drift! Wonder if the commissioners would still want an oath? Who would He swear to?

  2. There are already several tripwires built into this process to protect from the over allocation of water. In addition to the commissioners' approval, the Maryland Department of the Environment is tasked with issuing withdrawal permits for all water sources, an attempt to further protect new development from capacity issues. Adding an oath doesn't really seem to be the answer.

Requiring an oath sets a new high bar in local political relations. For our history up until now we've been comfortable that town officials are simply doing their best, within the limits of their ability, to adequately represent the needs of their own communities. Not any more!

Even with the oath requirement, there may still be a problem. At least one commissioner has already stated on the record that it doesn't matter what Middletown officials say, he doesn't believe them. Oath or not, he says they cannot be trusted.

To the jaded observer of Frederick political history, this new standard opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Commissioners might just have to take an oath to present to the legislative delegation; we wouldn't want any misrepresentations to creep into the legislative process!

County staff might need an oath prior to submitting budget requests; we wouldn't want to take their word that the submissions aren't padded.

Now that the commissioners have an ethics and disclosure regulation (that they apparently don't like), maybe we should require they take an oath every time they list an ex parté communication that occurred.

You see, this whole "oath" thing could quickly outlive its usefulness depending on the motivations of the people levying the requirement. There just so happens to be a better alternative, it's called interpersonal communication. If trust is an issue, then work to resolve it; don't replace a good old face-to-face discussion with an oath. It just indicates "failure to communicate."

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