Courthouse Square

Observer-Reporter

Observer-Reporter

Washington County’s Courthouse Square office building

The Washington County commissioners are hoping to create an 11-member board to study and review the county government that could eventually recommend changes to its structure.

The commissioners are expected to announce at today’s voting meeting a plan to form a government study commission, which would first have to be approved by voters during the next election, along with electing 11 county residents to sit on the review board.

An ordinance to get the process in motion will have to be advertised for seven days before the commissioners are expected to vote during a special virtual meeting at 10 a.m. July 23 to put the issue on the ballot for the public to ultimately decide.

Board Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan and Commissioner Larry Maggi both offered their support for the advisory board following Wednesday’s workshop meeting, while Commissioner Nick Sherman indicated he was “apprehensive” about making any changes to county government.

If the ordinance is approved next week, voters would simultaneously choose whether to create the commission, and if so, select 11 county residents who circulated nominating petitions to have their names placed on the ballot. The positions are only open to registered voters, although their party affiliation will not be included on the ballot.

The board would then meet for at least nine months to discuss possible changes and then make recommendations on whether to implement a new structure for county government or to keep it the same. Some options include term limits, reduced salaries for county officials or eliminating elected row officers, which Allegheny County did in the mid 2000s.

Any potential changes would then be voted on by the electorate during a future election, possibly as soon as November 2022.

“It is a daunting task,” Irey Vaughan said.

Since Irey Vaughan was elevated to board chair last January, the commissioners have reviewed a wide range of county operations, such as public safety, human services, corrections, elections and contract bids.

“This is another step at looking at the way our government functions,” Irey Vaughan said. “This just allows the county to answer a question as to whether or not (voters) want us to study the form of government to make a change or not.”

The proposal comes as tensions have risen in recent months within the courthouse between some of the row officers and the county commissioners. Register of Wills James Roman and Clerk of Courts Brenda Davis criticized the commissioners during the public statements portion of last month’s voting meeting, while Irey Vaughan threatened there could be an ““actionable” response to their comments.

Irey Vaughan said the turmoil in recent months “did play a role” in this move, along with the criminal activity by former Clerk of Courts Frank Scandale, who stole more than $97,000 from the office before he lost reelection to Davis in 2019. Irey Vaughan said she was unhappy no action could be taken to remove Scandale from office despite the missing money in his department he later pleaded guilty to stealing.

“This really got me thinking about the structure of the government,” Irey Vaughan said. “The public has been made aware of the struggles we’ve had with our structure of government and I believe the public has the right to review the structure and make changes, if they want.”

Maggi said he has wanted a commission to study the county government for the past four or five years – including when he was the board chair – but there wasn’t the “political will” for it until now.

“We’ve had this form of government for 240 years and it’s time to study it to see if it’s the best form,” Maggi said, alluding to the county’s formation in 1781. “But the people will make that decision, not politicians. …We’ll see if it comes to fruition.”

A similar government study commission was assembled in 2001 – when only Irey Vaughan was a commissioner – but no changes were enacted.

Sherman sounded a skeptical tone Wednesday and noted he was “very happy” with the county’s current structure of government. He suggested it should be up to voters to address perceived problems through the elections process rather that overturning the current system.

“I’ve been in discussion with a lot of people on my team on where we stand on this,” Sherman said. “I really like the structure of county government where it sits. If you’re unhappy with row officers … you work that out at the ballot box.”

But Sherman also appears to be in the minority on the issue, which would render his vote moot if Irey Vaughan and Maggi wish to proceed with the study.

“At this point, I’m weighing my options,” Sherman said.

The vote during a special meeting next Friday morning will be held through video conferencing. Instructions for members of the public who wish to comment before the vote – either through written or video statements – will be made available in the coming days.

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