One of the most wasteful exercises of government is proposing solutions in search of problems. Washington County Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Larry Maggi have done exactly that in their politically motivated proposal for a government study commission to examine the governmental structure of Washington County. This is particularly wasteful when one considers the number of real problems that do need to be addressed in the county.
If the proposal was honest, the altruistic rationale of looking at our government to see if it was truly best practice, if we could save taxpayers money and if our government could be more responsive might have merit, but the proposal is not honest. It is an attempt on the part of Irey Vaughan to do away with row officers with whom she is unable to get along, and it is an attempt by Maggi to bring Democrats back into power by the back door, having lost the majority in registration in the county and trounced in the elections. There is no public demand for a change in the form of government in our county.
While Irey Vaughan and Maggi talk about letting an independent commission recommend what form our government might be, they have hand selected a group of tired old politicians they will try to elect to the commission to do their bidding. They assuredly envision doing away with the row offices; the recorder of deeds, the prothonotary, the clerk of courts and the register of wills. These are offices elected by the people and accountable to the people. They are the checks and balances to the executive and judicial branches of our government. They may well also opt for a council and county executive role instead of three county commissioners. While a county council may sound like it is more representative, it is not because the council people have no real power. All power is vested in the county executive.
Think about Allegheny County. This is the form of government Allegheny County has. All power resides with Rich Fitzgerald. Think about Allegheny County’s problems and ask yourself if we want to look like Allegheny County.
Of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, only 17 have looked at Home Rule Charter since that became an option in 1972. Ten decided not to pursue it. In 50 years, only seven counties out of 67 adopted some form of Home Rule Charter. Most adopted it to solve problems. Luzerne County adopted home rule following a series of serious government scandals. Others did so to be able to raise taxes. Delaware did to manage local governments. None of the counties that have adopted home rule have done so because their commissioners could not get along with row officers. Are our commissioners saying we have a serious scandal problem or that they want to raise taxes?
Washington County has, in fact, looked at home rule twice before. In 1976 a government study commission was formed and spent 20 months doing an exhaustive study of the current government and alternatives. The question was placed on the Nov. 2, 1976, ballot and soundly defeated by the citizens of the county. In 2001, the subject of home rule came up again. This time Commissioner Irey Vaughan said she had no problem placing it on the ballot but believed a focus group should be required to collect signatures just as the county library board was required to do when it requested a referendum a couple years previously. So, in 2001, Irey Vaughan thought citizen input and signatures should be required, but in 2021 it is OK that she and Maggi can do it by themselves in one week. In 2001, the charter initiative was opposed by the SEIU and the Democratic Party. The big issue was that they didn’t want the row offices to be eliminated. Of course not: They were held by Democrats.
The nine-member study commission met for six months and voted that there was no need to change to form of government.
There was no need in 1976 or in 2001, and there is no need today. Settling personal issues and political power grabs are not reasons to waste taxpayer time and money.
We do need change, however. Do you think Irey Vaughan and Maggi would be willing to sign a pledge that if this county were to adopt a county executive form of government that both would decline to be considered for the county executive job? Not a chance.
Better yet, in the interest of fresh new ideas and innovation, would both sign a pledge that they will not run again? Isn’t 25-plus years as commissioner plenty long enough? It is well past time for new eyes and new voices. Let’s add new people to help Commissioner Nick Sherman. That’s the change we really need.
Dave Ball is chairman of the Washington County Republican Party and a Peters Township councilman.