Washington County citizens have reason to be overwhelmed by the flurry of initiatives launched by the commissioners in recent months. The three major projects are unique but easy to confuse. First, an election referendum to adopt a Government Study Commission; second, an expansion of human services functions in Washington County; and third, approval of an automated case management system for the county courts, have all been introduced.
To make matters more confounding is the misinformation being circulated by certain parties to derail the most deserving of these plans. This commentary will attempt to explain each the above initiatives, how they are related and how they differ.
Government Study Commission: This summer, the concept of a Government Study Commission progressed from a good idea (one that I have advocated for several years) to an actual ordinance placing the referendum to adopt the study commission before the voters on Nov. 2. If Washington County ultimately adopts a Home Rule form of government, it would enhance the ability to make decisions based on local needs. Washington County would no longer be forced to follow a one-size-fits-all state code that is decided by state legislators.
In August, those interested in serving on the commission had a brief window to gather signatures on a petition backing their candidacy. On Election Day, voters will decide whether to adopt a Government Study Commission and on the same ballot will select 11 commissioners from among 51 candidates. They will only serve if the vote to form the commission is in the affirmative.
The decision by the county commissioners to fast track a Government Study Commission was no doubt influenced by the deteriorating relationship between the commissioners and the Washington County court system on one side and the Republican officials elected to administer the clerical row offices on the other. It is true that the study commission could advocate for elimination of these offices. One professional administrator, appointed by the courts and the commissioners, to perform these clerical functions, would replace partisan elected officials. However, it is important to keep in mind that an elected study commission would be tasked with examining all aspects of county government, not simply the future of the clerical row offices.
The process in adopting a Home Rule Charter is purposefully deliberate and involves public/voter input at all phases of the multiple stage proceeding mandated by state law. Public meetings to solicit ideas will be held, research on other Pennsylvania Home Rule Counties conducted, and all options discussed. The study commission may decide to retain the existing governmental structure in which case the project is concluded. If the commission drafts a new plan, only the Washington County voters can approve the proposed Home Rule Charter.
It is baffling to me that the Washington County Republican Party has mounted an all-out campaign to convince voters not to appoint a government study commission. In 2019, Republicans campaigned on the deficiencies in local government and the theft in the Clerk of Court’s office. Now that Republicans are in the majority in Washington County, they have the opportunity to play a meaningful role in developing a governmental structure that addresses their concerns. Instead, local Republicans have elected irresponsible officials to several of the row offices and refused to participate in a democratic process to improve local government.
Expansion of county Human Services: With a bipartisan decision at a recent meeting, Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughn and Larry Maggi delayed any move to reconfigure the county’s Department of Human Services. Commissioner Nick Sherman, who proposed the unneeded and costly expansion, was not in agreement. The plan for the new Human Services Department would include the hiring of eight new employees at an additional yearly cost of $544,000.
In addition to the cost, the other well-founded criticism of the plan is that it is not needed and would disrupt years of building efficient human service organizations outside of county government. These nonprofits (drug and alcohol, elderly and aging and others) have flourished under their independent leadership and have met the needs of Washington County residents. In the sage words of recently deceased District Attorney Gene Vittone, “Service delivery is working in the area of drug and alcohol. An old adage is applicable here. ‘If it isn’t broken don’t fix it.’ Let our team continue our good work.”
Automated case management system for the county courts: The commissioners have approved the purchase of a comprehensive case management system that will integrate all court employees and courtrooms, including the functions of the clerical row offices, into one system. The county can use pandemic relief funds received from the federal government to pay for the installation. The federal courts and several forward-looking Pennsylvania counties have installed similar systems that have proven to be a significant cost reduction over time. Fewer clerks will be needed to process paper documents and storage costs will be reduced. Litigants in the court system will save on legal fees because lawyers throughout the region will be able to file legal pleadings electronically.
In connection with the above county initiatives, I would like to make two observations. First, the misguided attempt to reconfigure Human Services should be a topic reviewed by the Government Study Commission. This would give independent elected citizens the opportunity to make recommendations. Second, the court case management system will have a profound effect on the clerical row offices, whether they are replaced or remain in effect as elected offices.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.