Can Washington County and the City of Hagerstown work together? 

January 11 – Compromise between various local organizations is often critical, but particularly in government. 

Tuesday afternoon, Washington County Commissioners and Hagerstown City Council held a joint meeting where growth and water were discussed, among other things, and opinions ran relatively hot. 

Hagerstown Mayor Tekesha Martinez said, “The good thing is anytime you can get a bunch of elected officials and key staff members in the same room together and kind of talk and being able to talk for one hour is good news. But both elected bodies kind of wanted to talk about some things specifically that affect this entire county. We’re growing really quickly, the fastest growing region, so we wanted to talk about water. We wanted to also clear up some things. I feel like sometimes language gets confused and I wanted to clear up that we’re not pulling out of anything. We’re actually trying to reconfigure some things and work better collaboratively together. I feel like NTF, Narcotics Task Force, there’s been some rumors that the Hagerstown Police Department and the city was pulling out of the Narcotics Task Force, which is a joint policing group with Washington County, which kind of focuses on the drugs that are happening within the entire county. But what was happening was the way our chief explained it is that policing doesn’t happen the same way. There’s not people sitting in the room, listening to wiretaps for hours and so it’s not really that you don’t need that same design, right? But you still need the same momentum and the same target when it comes to the Narcotics Task Force.”

With Hagerstown centered so close to Baltimore and the 81 corridor, the task force is quite essential. 

Martinez said, “Chief talks about that people are not doing it on the phone anymore. They’re using things like Snapchat. They’re transferring money, it’s not hand to hand. It’s now through Cashapp. It’s things like that and so you have to be more creative within your policing in order to get the evidence that you need in order to do the things that you do. We’re just looking for more ways to kind of be creative around that. So not pulling out of it, but kind of like redesigning how it happens and our chief explained that. It was a moment for them (Washington County Commissioners) to ask questions, to get clarified exactly what we’re doing and what we got back was kind of confrontational, kind of defensive. I feel like when you are members of an elected body, if your first thing when someone is saying hey, we want to collaborate, hey, we want to get a better understanding around this language and you come back with confrontation and offense, it just feels like the agenda was off anyway. We got a lot back from their county executive, which kind of was like alright, we have our staff here to kind of explain some things to this elected body so that there’s clarification, so that none of us are running around and saying we’re not going to work together. We got back data and analytics and statistics. We were like, we didn’t come for that. We came to say, so that everyone watching will know that the city wants to work with the county and the county wants to work with the city.”

Water was another big issue. 

Martinez said, “I’ve been affected by politics for my entire life, either affected or affected, right? Like not a negative or positive. I’m new to this. So being fresh, my thing is how do we get past all of the stuff that has been in the way for years and how do we work together to move forward? Government moves slowly anyway. So we ended up with, I believe, three working groups, which will be just our staff because of politics, I’m not an expert on water. Why are we sitting in arguing water? I mean, Councilmember Aleshire is. He’s a city manager for Myersville, so he understands all of that stuff. We’re going to argue about water as elected officials?”

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “But you weren’t there to get into that nitty gritty. You were there to say here’s us in our judiciary or our boundary of our municipality within your larger municipality, but we share some of the responsibilities for this water issue together. How can we best come together to be more effective in dealing with not going into the BPUs right now?”

Martinez noted, “We have a very good police department, same thing with our fire department. All we want to do is work together with the county. I believe this administration and elected body is one of the best because we understand differences are what they are, but they should not get in the way of making sure people have water, public safety and fire service. We have some working groups. It was just tense and I shared with the body last night in my closing comments, I don’t mind those tense conversations, because I realize that on the other side of that is real collaboration. If everyone sits and head nods and everybody just nods and we just leave and say, okay, I don’t feel like you get anything out of that. You just kind of get the same. You wait 28 years for something to happen. I feel like that’s my job is to address the elephant in the room, which is conflict that is old and it’s stale and we’re growing too fast to be stuck in some conflict.”

Hagerstown Police Chief Kifer pointed out how much crime has changed in recent years. 

Martinez added, “The fire departments just wanted to work together because the city has a brand new Deputy Fire Chief. So they’re brand new. We also did come away from that saying this was tense, but we’d like to keep doing it. So can we meet again quarterly? It was Commissioner Keefer that kind of jumped in. I would say Commissioner Barr and Commissioner Keefer are more receptive to having more conversations.”

Jansen suggested, “It’s engagement. It’s what we talk about all the time. We find things so divided right now and every group seems to be trying to protect itself and look at every other group as oppositional instead of realizing no, no, we’re one group that’s concerned with these issues, but we want to engaged and even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it causes a few tense moments, that’s okay. We’ll get beyond that and start finding better ways to engage.”

Martinez said, “Even with our own council meeting yesterday, it happens. There’s misunderstanding, there’s defensiveness, there’s offense. It happened during our council meeting and the same way that I will do it with a different team, I do it on my team. Pause. That was disrespectful. We’re not going to continue to do that. I feel like I’m in the game, but I feel like I’m a referee to the game.” 

Paul Frey, president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce said, “The intention was how can we work together, how can we collaborate with each other? As my friend at Meritus once told me, hey, I know the problems, what are the solutions? So what are some solutions to our growth because we’re in a great area with opportunities? We need more housing, we need more infrastructure, it’s never going to get less expensive. So how can we work together as a community to solve the problems? I think a spirited discussion is a nice way of putting it. I think the intentions are good. I know the county commissioners and the council and the mayor want to move forward together. I think if we could focus on the solution and not the problems, we’ll be much further ahead.”

Jansen said, “I think there was some defensiveness or something going on there that didn’t allow for. I think some with very well intentions wanted to just engage and maybe start talking about those solutions, and how we can work together. But people get into a little bit of finger pointing or they get into just what are you trying to blame us for? It’s too bad that those tense feelings can come up when really the good intentions I think of the majority was ‘let’s just engage.”’

Frey noted, “I think something to remember in these types of situations, it’s not who’s right. It’s what’s right? Who cares who comes up with the great ideas or the solutions? I think one of the concerns for elected officials is they’re looking out for the interests of their constituents and the city council is looking out for the city of Hagerstown residents, and this county is looking out for their constituents. I think part of this solution is having a conversation and the other word for conflict is normal. So this is all normal. I think we’re going to work through this. Certainly the citizens and the business community need to weigh in and be part of the solution as well.”

Ryan pointed out, “There’s been that back and forth between, remember the 911 troubles, between the county and the city. I don’t know how you fix that. I know you said it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong. It’s what’s right or what’s wrong, I guess.”

Frey said, “Because of the Sunshine laws, if you have three or more folks, you have to have public meetings. I think if you can do two on two, you could do two commissioners, two council members, and maybe the mayor, because when you get in the public forum, human nature, you might get defensive, but if you’re not the public, and you can talk about some of these things, one on one or two on two, you can I think get a little bit deeper. We’ll see what happens. We’re not giving up. We’ll keep moving forward and hopefully find some solutions here.”

Jansen added, “There’s no perfect solution. There’s trade offs, and we have to be honest about what those trade offs are. That’s where we have to debate it and say, well, what’s the trade off, negative positive for the city, which is the biggest municipality of course in the county and be honest about that. If we could just do that instead of saying, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’, I think we could just get things done so much better.”

Frey said, “It takes some leadership to say you know what? It may cost taxpayers a little bit more money, but to fund our growth for the next 20 or 30 years, we need to make this investment so our kids and grandkids can benefit. It’s sometimes hard to say for elected officials, but there are certain things you have to invest in the future and it might cost $50, $60, $70 more a year in taxes. Don’t leverage that. Just talk about the positive investment that we’re making for our future.”