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As Long as We Remember...

June 20, 2011

Studying the Privatization Study

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Oliver Porter, the consultant chosen by the Board of County Commissioners to study privatizing certain county government services, unveiled his report last Thursday.


To say this was the most anticipated consultant study presented at Winchester Hall in recent years is like saying the Stock Market Crash caused some discomfort on Wall Street in the late 20’s/early 30’s.


Everyone was watching, especially county workers, the ones whose careers seem to be in the cross hairs. Mr. Porter comes across as studious, patient and competent fellow, his many articles and published writing on this subject, coupled with the fact that he travelled a great distance to attend, all appear to qualify him as an expert.


In fact, Mr. Porter’s travel plans caused some consternation among the many people who spoke out against the study. Time and again, he was criticized for flying in Thursday morning and flying out again that same night. Sounds like he needs a new travel agent!


This report was intended as a culminating event in an ongoing assessment of how Sandy Springs, Georgia, transferred most professional and technical services to the private sector. Commissioners have had briefings and even made a well-publicized trip to Georgia.


Without regard to the compatibility of the comparison (there really isn’t much at all), this is really more a political argument than it is a public policy debate. Time and again, speakers who objected to the presentation did so for political reasons, not because they had any real evidence to suggest that studying privatization was problematic.


In fact, it’s safe to say that almost all of the testimony offered was emotional. Mr. Porter’s presentation was rather academic, the responses from the public were directed less at Porter and his work than they were towards Commissioners’ President Blaine Young and a majority of his colleagues.


A string of speakers, many seemingly fresh from a local Democratic Club meeting, attacked the Young Board for its brazen attempt to remake county government in its own image. Some stuck to the argument that not enough time was given for public consumption, but most bemoaned the poor county employees who would be cut lose in exchange for private sector workers.


As President Young said repeatedly, this was only intended as an initial presentation. A series of public meetings will be scheduled wherein county staff and the public will have the chance to challenge the work product and assumptions of Mr. Porter and his firm.


The whole “there wasn’t enough time to prepare” argument is a red herring. Do we really believe that the success or failure of the study turns on how Oliver Porter answers questions about his study methodology? The truth is that there will be at least four public meetings over the next month-and-a-half. Disaffected and disgruntled citizens will be able to carefully pour over every phrase and crunch every number, and then come to a meeting and express opinions based on actual information.


The larger questions are so far left unanswered. Was Sandy Springs an appropriate comparative case study? Will the savings that inured to the benefit of Sandy Springs taxpayers be replicated in Frederick County? Should a complex subject like privatization of services be developed and introduced without a substantial education effort in advance of a roll-out? Will current public sector workers be afforded the chance to “compete” to keep their work, or will they be cast aside like so much chattel?


It isn’t clear that these questions will ever be answered. As he stated very bluntly in response to a challenge from one speaker, President Young believes firmly that he was put into office to change how county government does its job. He is more concerned with the welfare of county taxpayers than he is the welfare of a county employee…or 500 county employees.


A few speakers introduced themselves as economists. With all of these retired economists, can’t we come up with some ideas to solve the national debt crisis? Maybe if they were focused on Capitol Hill in DC and not Winchester Hall in Frederick, we might all be better off.


Most of Thursday’s speakers are well known in county political circles. With pretty much no exceptions, the familiar faces complaining about the report, the timing, and privatization in general were all people who aggressively and actively campaigned against the majority of the Board of County Commissioners elected last November.


That begs the question: where were the Blaine Young supporters, the small government conservatives who want to see county government reduced and inevitable increases in revenues eliminated from the lexicon?


Answer? At home, as they’ve already done their work. They rallied to the cause last fall, turning out in record numbers to vote in their Golden Boy and his colleagues. Opponents are stuck with depending on Commissioner David Gray as the loyal voice of opposition, an almost guaranteed loser in 4-1 votes cast time and again.


In a fairly mild act of civil disobedience, Commissioner Gray provided an advanced copy of the consultant report to The Frederick News-Post. They had to know it was coming, as they reserved a banner headline article for it. Speakers at Thursday’s session lionized Mr. Gray for his bravery; you’d have thought he stopped a speeding train instead of surreptitiously copying a paper report.


This wasn’t really a Paul Revere ride in the face of a British invasion, or our own Barbara Fritchie’s brazen flag wave towards Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry. Wonder who did the copying? Was it David, huddled over a copy machine in Winchester Hall, rushing outside in the dark to hand off the still-warm pages to an intrepid reporter?


Maybe it was a Watergate-era Deep Throat deal, with Commissioner Gray meeting a reporter in a darkened parking lot, slipping a blank manila envelope between hands in time for the presses to roll. Either way, it adds color to a rather colorless story.


Let’s hope people, not just the enemies of the current Board of County Commissioners like former Commissioner Kai Hagen, will review the report and provide their unabashed feedback, pro AND con, to the commissioners. Let’s hope that county employees are given safe harbor to share their concerns, as they are the ones who will be most affected.


Finally, let’s hope every adult with an interest in Frederick County takes some time to study this study.


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