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Cafe Society to discuss Jefferson County government

By Staff | Jan 16, 2017

At its next session on Jan. 17, the Cafe Society will discuss how Jefferson County government operates and the issues that it is currently facing. The dialog will be enhanced by the active participation of former County Commissioner Dale Manuel who has also served in the West Virginia House of Delegates in Charleston.

There is no lack of interesting aspects to discuss on this topic since county government touches lives in many ways, probably more than most realize. With current pressures on generation of revenue at all levels of government, particularly here in West Virginia it will be a challenge to continue provision of government services at present levels and meeting public expectations. And of course the results of the recent national election may have unforeseen consequences that go far beyond campaign rhetoric. There are always unique considerations that apply to any local government as it attempts to function in carrying out its mandate within our increasingly complex political process. Jefferson County is certainly no exception. The location in the Eastern Panhandle with demographic, geographic and most importantly, economic factors that differ significantly from most of the other West Virginia counties complicate governance at the county level. Like it or not, local government is heavily constrained by state-level policies, procedures and politics.

Cafe Society discussions are held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. each Tuesday morning in the Rumsey Room of the Shepherd University (SU) Student Center. They are an integral part of the SU Life Long Learning Program and are intended to facilitate a dialog on current issues between the students and older members of our community. There are no fees or registration requirements

Cafe Society facilitator, Mike Austin commented, “If you want to get a crash course in county government, there is no better way than to attend one of the public County Commission meetings that are held on the first and third Thursdays of each month in the lower level of the Charles Town Public Library.

“The agendas for these sessions usually run to several pages and cover a wide range of topics. They include public comment periods as well, just to keep things interesting. Many aspects of our daily lives are in the hands of our commissioners who serve as well on a variety of boards and committees so their role extends far beyond decision making around a conference table into active management and monitoring of important functions out and about among us.

“Many of the issues that they handle are ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’ until there is a problem. You might be surprised by the extent to which effective governance is still dependent on volunteers and public spirited good neighbor efforts. These difficult functions have to be carried out in a fully transparent manner which requires effective communication across the growing number of channels that people rely upon today. And in the end, this is no alternative to direct personal involvement.”

Austin continued, “In a perfect world most political initiatives would begin and end at the local level reflecting the desires and needs of the people in a functioning democracy. But this isn’t a perfect world and we are not in a benign environment.

“Our local Jefferson County leaders have to work within a framework of prior decisions, policies and competing interests. Many are complex and frequently inconsistent because they reflect a long litany of prior compromises and concessions to prevailing political forces.

“Good examples are zoning and impact fees where the interests of investors and developers are often in conflict with existing property owners who want to defend their property values and life style. The resolution has to come through balanced efforts to compromise and form a viable consensus that addresses future needs of the community as well as the status quo.

“Facilitating that dialog is part of their role — getting all, or at least most of the critical information on the table in order to make equitable decisions. Another consideration is the time warp, or ripple effect in which events or actions taken at the national, regional and state levels ultimately cause waves that dramatically impact us here in our county. A competent commissioner has to see these forces coming and anticipate their impact locally. So, environmental concerns and international commodity supply and demand fluctuations depress state taxes and extraction royalties and balanced budget policies force commensurate reductions in state programs that directly influence local budgets and grants. Unavoidably essential services and desirable programs that directly affect our quality of life are hurt. There may be a time delay, but sooner or later important functions such as: public safety, emergency services, public health, our schools, local transportation, parks and recreation, historic preservation, farmland protection, and many other important programs are adversely impacted.”

Austin concluded by saying, “Hopefully our discussion will help to raise the awareness of the important role that our county commissioner play and encourage more of our citizens to take an active interest in their day to day efforts. It provides a refreshing sense of ownership, much more profound and gratifying than just going to the polls on Election Day.”