COMMENTARY: The first rays of sun beamed down on Jan. 1, 2011, in what would become known in Washington County as the Year of the Roundabout — a perfect symbol for the greater Hagerstown area, which spends much of its time going around in circles.
The Washington County Commissioners, for example, wasted little time getting down to their annual ritual of discussing a recycling program without actually doing anything about it. This streak of inaction is threatening the record of longevity established by Baltimore Orioles ironman Cal Ripken, who once went 2,632 games without recycling a petroleum-based bottle of water.
After several more rounds of fruitless negotiations, the county commissioners finally decided to settle the recycling issue once and for all, by allowing a final resolution to be determined by a U.S. congressional supercommittee.
It was all too much for a disappointed city of Hagerstown, which, after months of inaction, was forced to drop out of the 2011 stonewalling competition by actually passing zoning regulations that allow solar panels in residential areas, provided they meet a 93-million-mile setback requirement from the sun.
Inspired, the state of Maryland took action by shutting down the Sideling Hill rest area through April, forcing motorists to hold it for four months or leave the state.
In other highway news, winter took its toll in Maryland, as the myth of climate change generated so much snow that Washington County faced a severe shortage of road salt. Motorists on Interstate 70 westbound on South Mountain were stranded all night by a severe storm.
In other comings and goings, in the Rapidly Disappearing City of Hagerstown, fire raged through the once proud Moller pipe organ factory, and owners of the Venice Inn announced plans to tear down 150 rooms at the aging hotel. On Potomac Street, librarians announced the fifth annual Easy Picture Book Writing Contest as part of a winter celebration featuring a series of events that will conclude with the library's demolition.
The old Washington County Hospital will be torn down as well, but this time local leaders were ahead of the game. They formed a task force focused on industry, commerce and job creation, and after meeting for six months, they proudly announced that the old hospital property will be turned into a vibrant and thriving vacant lot.
All of this demolition and destruction of city property has an effect on real life, as 30,000 displaced pigeons show up at the Community Action Council demanding housing vouchers. It was a bad winter for birds all around, as a Prince George's County man was given probation for picking off ducks at City Park with a paintball gun. Police were tipped off to the incident after six mallards captured the PG County flag.
Elsewhere in the world of crime, police arrested a Washington County man after he attempted to mail drugs to an inmate in the county jail. It is doubtful that the scofflaw would have attempted such a hair-brained stunt had he been watching a special segment of "Beyond Scared Straight," which was filmed at MCI-Hagerstown for the A&E channel. "Beyond Scared Straight" is designed to discourage youths from committing crimes by showing them the realities of prison life. The segment ended prematurely, however, when four youths escaped and spent 36 hours on the lam before being picked up at a U.S. 40 Sheetz. The kids told their story to police and were immediately awarded first prize in the Washington County Free Library's Easy Picture Book Writing Contest.
And while we're talking about children, what winter would be complete without touching on the feats of the Maryland General Assembly, which held serious discussions about whether to change the names of Negro Mountain and Polish Mountain in Western Maryland on the theory that they are insensitive. Although the name of Polish Mountain remains the same, lawmakers were appeased when Hillshire Farms changed the name of its kielbasa to "Eastern Bloc Sausage."
Meanwhile, buildings kept coming down in Hagerstown, as fire destroyed the popular Greensburg Farm Market — unlike other city buildings, however, the owners had the structure rebuilt and open for business before the final firetruck left the premises.
Elsewhere on the local retail scene, outfitter L.L. Bean announced it would close its Hagerstown location because "it's more of a wilderness than we bargained for." And Valley Mall hosts a politician meet-and greet and a Farm Bureau-sponsored petting zoo — on the same day. All goes well until the electorate recalls Commissioners President Terry Baker and replaces him with an alpaca.
That scared the commissioners so much that they tried to restore their popularity, so in a fit of generosity to all who have served in the military, the commissioners considered honoring disabled American veterans by giving them discounts to the county landfill.
And charity extended to the homeless as well, as Habitat for Humanity held a gala fundraising celebration with an "Age of Aquarius" theme, complete with vintage Volkswagens, love beads and go-go boots. All went well until someone started handing out the brown acid and the freaked-out county commissioners offered $5 off county zoning permits to disabled American veterans.
Lest this be viewed as progress, however, the commissioners decided to delay the already much delayed Funkstown bypass for another year, or until "we're all flying around in personal spaceships so roads are no longer needed." If the road is ever constructed, however, the commissioners say it will include a roundabout at the intersection of the bypass and Frederick Street. Hagerstown motorists go from soak to agitate.
But springtime has always been a symbol of progress — except in Washington County, of course, where progress came to a halt at the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base as the owners of the property wrote down its value to zero, an indication that plans to rent space in the sprawling, mountaintop complex might not work out. This was just the latest setback for the venerable base, which has experienced problems ranging from lawsuits to buried, unexploded bombs to becoming overrun with excessive quantities of geese and deer. In writing the fort off its books, the owners cite legal entanglements, a poor economy and the fact that "we just realized that this place is really in the middle of freaking nowhere."
Turmoil was in the air at another local institution as well, that being the state prison complex south of Hagerstown, as the state implemented, and then backed off, a policy of reviewing job applicants' social media pages. Tensions rose further as a union representative from a public employees union might have lost his temper at a gathering of correctional officers where they were discussing union dues. According to guards and elected officials, the representative acted in "an unprofessional, threatening and belligerent manner," then "blew up as the debate escalated, and launched an expletive-laden tirade." A group of guards finally asked that the union rep be banned from prison grounds after he unfriended them on Facebook.
There was some progress somewhere, however, as the county commissioners approved $400,000 in spending at Hagerstown Regional Airport to pay for an automated baggage conveyor system and to "expand its passenger-holding space." The airport needs more space for passengers since there are no longer any planes coming to take them away. Ha, this is a joke of course. In reality, the county needs to expand its facilities because of flights generated by the new carrier Direct Air. Meanwhile, as county recycling plans continued to fester away on the back burner, the commissioners approved $6.3 million for construction of two new cells at the Forty West Landfill.
But even this action was an improvement over that of the Washington County state delegation members, who did nothing in Annapolis all session and then got into a fight over who did the least. Democratic Del. John P. Donoghue refused to attend post-session forums, saying the delegation as a whole voted against the state budget, got no money for county citizens and as a result had nothing to discuss. Republicans countered that they had a productive session because they kept Democrats from doing as much damage as they usually do.
But who says that government can't be productive? In two separate stings, police pulled over nearly 150 motorists on Dual Highway, some for violations spotted by a new high-tech license plate reader, and others for violating the state's new "move over" law, which requires drivers to shift into the left lane when approaching a stopped police cruiser or ambulance. Washington County Republicans responded by promising to introduce a "don't you have anything better to do like investigate some unsolved crimes or something" law in Annapolis next session.
And in traffic-intersection news, a roundabout is proposed for the entrance to Hagerstown Community College. Hagerstown motorists go from agitate to spin.
By summer, action was in the air in the County Commissioners' offices as the county passed a capital improvement budget that included funding for a road from Hagerstown Community College to somewhere near Hagerstown Community College.
Another local highway issue surfaced when Washington County's public works director delivered the alarming news that "Washington County's budget for road patching and repaving next year is the lowest in at least five years, and totals less than half of what the county should be spending" to prevent widespread road deterioration. The county placed an urgent call to the state, but was told that highway officials were all out attending a ribbon cutting for Maryland's brand new $2.6 billion Intercounty Connector highway in the suburbs.
Times are hard for everyone. Venerable Washington County institutions such as Wolfe's on the Square in Williamsport, Bast Furniture in Boonsboro, Barnwood Books and Corderman's Hardware in Hagerstown bid the county a fond farewell. Meanwhile, hundreds of people line up to watch former Cleveland Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar host the grand opening of a Longaberger Basket Factory Store at Premium Outlets.
Some believe that if the nation is to be saved it will be on a wave of alternative energy, and Western Maryland's own Roscoe Bartlett announced a plan to "reduce oil consumption in the military." The plan includes funding for a new electric jet aircraft that can climb up to 30,000 feet before needing a recharging.
Rockets fill the air at Antietam as well for the annual Salute to Independence celebration, but a pall hangs over Washington County with the institution of the state's new 3 percent tax increase on liquor, which prompted police to initiate a new public service campaign, "Don't weep and drive."
Meanwhile, in its ongoing war on recycling, the county removed recycling bins from Funkstown after complaints that the bins were being used as temporary housing for failed "Dancing With the Stars" competitors.
And speaking of star power, two F-15 jet fighters scrambled to escort a Cessna away from restricted air space over Camp David, which was occupied at the time by President Obama. After the small plane landed, Secret Service agents were seen dragging away Del. Neil C. Parrott, who said he was only trying to get Malia and Sasha to sign his anti-immigrant petition.
In other unpleasantness, PETA demanded that the Miss Maryland pageant drop its custom of giving the winning contestant a fur coat. Officials with the Miss Maryland pageant agreed on the condition that PETA drop its custom of being a moron. As it turns out, our local members of Congress count themselves among the fur-coat class, as reports show that at least five of our eight U.S. senators and representatives are millionaires. The report does not count the financial situation of Roscoe Bartlett, who was unable to file in time after his car became stuck in a drift of twenties.
Wayward cash hopefully will not be a problem in Washington County, after the commissioners agreed to a "longer, more detailed" version of the county's ethics policy. The new policy includes the "Seven Warning Signs of Extortion" and suggests that if you are a Maryland county employee, it is not acceptable to have your wife hide the cash in her underpants. As one metropolitan county official discovered, such instructions can lead to a prison sentence in the Maryland Correctional Institution, on whose land officials announced plans for a $70 million solar farm that will generate 20 megawatts of power.
In other spending-woe news, Direct Air (the airline that prompted the county to spend $400,000 for improved baggage conveyors and more passenger space) announced it will end service to Hagerstown. Direct Air served Hagerstown for a grand total of 59 days, making it the third longest-serving airline in the history of the Hagerstown airport. Alarmed County Commissioners immediately approved another $4 million in airport spending to make it easier for departing airlines to handle their baggage.
If air travel is cold, backyard chicken-raising is hot. Several towns considered allowing residents to raise a handful of chickens behind their homes. The Boonsboro council actually took it to a vote, but the measure was defeated by council members who feared they might one day lose their seats to a rooster.
More wildlife was in the news, as the state DNR threatened to suspend the licenses of six local fishermen for various infractions, including possession of a smallmouth bass out of season and exceeding the limit on sunfish.
In roundabout news, the county says one is needed at the intersection of Garis Shop and Poffenberger roads. Hagerstown motorists suggest making the commissioners' bench into a roundabout and spinning its members off into space.
The crisp days of fall brought other state matters to the forefront, and in a vote of confidence for our local elected representatives to Annapolis, five Western Maryland counties try to decide whether they should hire a lobbyist to promote Western Maryland interests. These issues would include, but not be limited to, protecting rural housing densities, making sure septic tank regulations are fair and upping the limit on sunfish.
A state lobbyist seems all the more necessary, when local lawmakers allowed an $800,000 state grant for senior-center funding to slip through their fingers, forcing county taxpayers to pick up the bill. The commissioners briefly considered delaying the project until angry seniors showed up at a commissioners meeting and hurled their teeth at the dais.
Development was on the mind of Hagerstonians as well, when the Chamber of Commerce brought in an "urbanologist" to tap into the city's soul and suggest ways in which the city might become more robust. Among other things, the urbanologist pointed to a local alley and said, "This isn't (just) a brick wall, it is a canvas." He also suggested that city leaders encourage home-grown investors. "Who is the most famous person from Hagerstown?" he asks. "You should have them come and invest in something." Contacted at his home, Lou Scally said he'd like to help, but he was really planning to have his driveway sealed this fall.
In politics, dozens of Republicans cried that the newly drawn 6th Congressional District was patently unfair, then proceeded to knock each other senseless trying to be the first one to file as a candidate for the office. As drawn, the new district includes parts of Montgomery County, that bastion of godless, tree-hugging, foreigner-tolerating, Prius-driving, tax-and-spend, uber-liberal pinkos. Montgomery County, in turn, expresses surprise that Washington County isn't actually part of West Virginia.
Washington County made a move to become more urbane, rolling out the first annual Maryland International Film Festival, which was a great success until Washington County hired a couple of toughs who accosted Robert Maxwell, twirling brickbats and saying "da bosses what to know when you gonna pay dem dat tree-hundred grand you owe." Maxwell, however, induced them into a coma-like state by showing them a seven-hour director's cut from "Gods and Generals."
With winter on the doorstep, and in myth of climate change news, a freak October snowstorm cancels the Mummers Parade, meaning that for the first time in memory, it will be possible to drive downtown on the last Saturday in October. The storm knocked out electrical service to thousands of customers, and Allegheny Power crews worked feverishly to restore electricity, but only to homes that have sprinklers.
The county commissioners approved $232,000 for a transit museum at the county ag center south of Hagerstown. The site will feature exhibits of trains, planes and automobiles, basically meaning that everything that used to provide jobs in Washington County has now been relegated to a museum. And when there are no jobs, people naturally will resort to a life of crime. But unlike seasoned criminals, these newbies frequently display more proper manners, including a Hagerstown man who receives a lighter sentence for the robbery of a local bank because he asks the clerk, "Can I please have that stack of money?" Under Maryland law, harsher sentences are reserved for robbers who actually threaten violence. The man further impresses the judge by saying that robbing another bank "is not something I'd ever see myself doing in the future."
If possible though, the news gets even worse for the bank-robbing profession when a man who was being checked by an ambulance crew for a suspected heart attack is asked by medics if he had been digging or doing other strenuous activity. The man replies, "No, I was robbing a bank." He was arrested and charged with robbing a Hagerstown bank branch with a BB gun, as somewhere in the Midwest, Jesse James spins wildly in his grave.
Moving on to other courtroom news, a Washington County judge was reprimanded by a state commission for duping a couple of feet-dragging attorneys into thinking that they needed to reach an out-of court settlement or else they would be forced to prepare for an immediate trial. In Maryland, the penalty for playing tricks on lawyers is a free meal at Ruth's Chris.
And as the year draws to a close in the Tri-State area, the noose is tightening around texting drivers, as Maryland and Pennsylvania discuss tougher laws, a national texting ban gets closer to reality and local nonprofits engage in an ad campaign to discourage the unsafe practice. All was going well until five people were hospitalized after a car wreck when the driver became distracted by reading an anti-texting billboard. Drivers are coming under further fire as the City of Hagerstown moves toward entering into a contract with a for-profit company that will operate speed cameras within city limits. Council members said speed cameras will "free up" officers to do other things, leading a community activist group to install cameras outside city doughnut shops.
So smile, Hagerstown, you could be on the next episode of "Speed Watch Camera." It will give us something to look forward to in 2012. Which is OK with us, since having to relive 2011 is not something we would ever see ourselves doing in the future.