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County Hall Corner: The Perfect County Commissioner

I waited until August 29th to wave the white flag, not for surrender, but as in NASCAR racing, it symbolizes the last lap around the track. In ten weeks, we will have an election, and there will be at least two new Lycoming County Commissioners coming on board. I have been touching base with the candidates and will try to highlight them in the coming weeks ahead, but if they are doing their jobs right, they will be getting out to you, the public.

Having been a spectator at Lycoming County Commissioners Meeting for eight years now and interacting with the commissioners as well as their department heads, I believe I have a fairly good idea of what Lycoming County voters should look for in those who will be stepping up to this new challenge.

Whoever is elected will have a handicap from day one, and that is the massive amount of info that relates to government operations. I experienced this myself when I was elected as a township supervisor. There is a hidden language in government that uses endless acronyms; if you don’t know them, you are lost.

I was the ultimate newbie to the local Pennsylvania government, and in one of my first meetings, there was a discussion about SALDO. I had no idea what this was. It sounded to me like a dog’s name (“Here, Saldo, come here, boy.”) I quickly discovered it stood for Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances, and I also discovered we had to abide by this edict because it was the law. We had to say “No” to a resident who wished to do something with his property (which I don’t remember now what that was), but I do remember he was quite perturbed about it. I wanted to help him but realized I could not do what I thought was right and good. Rather, I had to follow the law. Period.

This is the great wake-up call that almost every person in a new position discovers, even in the business world. There is a severe learning curve right off the bat, not just in the official rules and regulations but even in the informal protocols and culture that every organization has. Thus, if the person elected is not up to speed, they are going to find themselves swimming in frustration for some time. To that end, it is refreshing to see several of the candidates running being regular attendees to the weekly county commissioners’ meetings. Hopefully, the others are watching on livestream or YouTube.

The scope of being a Lycoming County Commissioner is much bigger than many people realize. The commissioners oversee a budget of over $100 million and a staff of over 500 people. If this was a company, it would be one of the largest in Lycoming County. Thus, it is also extremely important that these new commissioners have a firm grasp of financial and personnel management. This does not mean the ‘perfect’ commissioner needs to have an MBA degree from Harvard Business School, but it also does not mean that they can wing it, either. Managers in SMOs (small to medium organizations), as well as business owners and military veterans who were officers or noncommissioned officers, have much experience in these areas. And, of course, serving in a political position of responsibility also helps get the feet wet.

But as important as these intellectual aspects are, the potential candidate should also be a person of character and honor. Russell Kirk, an American political theorist, historian, social and literary critic (and often considered one of the most brilliant men of the twentieth century), made this observation about those in government, “A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society — whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon the gratification of appetites, will be a bad society — no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.”

In summary, the perfect county commissioner would have experience in Pennsylvania municipal government, have a good grasp and experience in management and finance, and have high moral standards. And, of course, the most important thing to remember about the search for the perfect county commissioner — nobody is perfect.