EDITORIAL: Absurd demands by Barr only part of the problem

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Carroll County politics, sometimes, is a theatre of the absurd, and in this week's performance, County Judge Sam Barr was the star actor.

Our judge is known for being, at best, reluctant to say much about policy changes or other important and controversial issues that involve his office. Got a difficult question for Judge Barr? We'd bet our bottom dollar you won't get a clear, timely answer, if you get one at all.

We certainly can't get one.

Barr's silence was a problem for us several months ago, when we were reporting on changes in the 911 dispatching practices regarding which medical response helicopter team would be called for serious injuries.

Those changes, instigated by Sheriff Bob Grudek, caused a bit of under-the-radar uproar because of disagreement at the courthouse about whether the sheriff, who currently manages the 911 dispatch center, had the legal right to make them. Multiple sources told Carroll County News that Barr and his Democrat companions were grumbling behind the scenes that Grudek, a Republican, was overstepping his boundaries since state law clearly grants the county judge control of 911 dispatch operations. There was even considerable talk in local political circles that a showdown over who should run dispatch was on the horizon -- though that has not yet materialized.

We at Carroll County News, of course, went straight to the horses' mouths, interviewing both Grudek and Barr. Grudek was more than forthcoming, explaining the reasons for the operational changes and acknowledging that Barr did, indeed, have legal authority over the dispatch center.

(What Grudek didn't say -- what he didn't have to say -- is that Barr hasn't ever opted to exercise that control or those management duties -- at least not in recent memory. He is hands-off when it comes to dispatch, and has been since taking office; the current sheriff has managed the dispatch center ever since taking over the duties from former County Judge Richard Williams, who was defeated in 2008 by Barr. So we were all a little surprised to hear of alleged opposition to Grudek's plans. The plans themselves seemed harmless enough. Perhaps, then, the explanation was in the timing -- which, coming in an election year, seemed calculated. We await further developments surrounding this issue -- while hope there turn out to be none.)

What also seemed a bit calculated was Barr's reluctance to express to Carroll County News his own opinion about the dispatch affair. While Grudek was forthcoming, Barr was evasive -- almost secretive -- with his thoughts on the matter. And it was not to be the last time the judge would decline comment on an important issue facing county residents or coming before the Quorum Court.

On Thursday, when we were preparing the article for last Friday's weekend edition about Barr's demands regarding the proposed salary study, we were again confronted with an uncommunicative county judge.

Although we had asked Barr several times throughout the week for an explanation of his requests, they still made no sense to us. We didn't want to report something we didn't understand and, as a result, either make mistakes or unjustly characterize the judge as unreasonable. However, still having received no satisfactory answers, we are forced to conclude that he is, in fact, being unreasonable.

Barr is demanding that in order for him to sign off on a salary study for county employees the Quorum Court must first pass a resolution promising to abide by the study's pay recommendations.

This is absurd. It's like going all in, blind, in Texas Hold 'Em -- when you're holding a pot worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Barr has said his demand is based on the understanding that the City of Harrison was sued after it conducted a similar study and later departed from the study's recommendations.

Barr is not entirely wrong. The City of Harrison did undertake a salary study in the late 1980s. They did depart from the recommendations of that study, and they were sued in 1998, settling out of court the next year for $360,000.

While all of this is true, the judge blundered on the most critical point: The city was not sued for conducting a study and then departing from the recommendations. The city was sued because it passed an ordinance adopting those recommendations as the official pay plan of the city -- an ordinance, mind you, just like the one the judge is now proposing. The resolution, not the recommendations, was the source of the lawsuit. Robert White, one of two attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Harrison case, told the Carroll County News as much on Friday.

When the judge laid out his demand for a resolution last Tuesday, he had a copy of that very lawsuit sitting on his desk. We can imagine only three possibilities that might rationalize the judge's behavior. None of them are especially comforting.

The first is that Barr did not, in fact, read the lawsuit. That would mean the judge is guilty of a very acute kind of recklessness.

Possibility number two is that he read the lawsuit, but somehow managed to draw the exact opposite conclusion from that of the JPs on the personnel committee, our staff, and the very attorney who argued the lawsuit in the first place. We won't comment on what option number two would indicate about the judge's competency. The last possibility is that Barr made his demand realizing that it would leave the county vulnerable for a lawsuit and would, thus, be impossible for JPs to accept.

That last option would suggest the judge was guilty of spreading propaganda. We can't understand what his motives would be in doing that. Perhaps he could think it necessary to mislead citizens in order to protect them from what he sees as wasteful spending; he has contended all along that the $18,000 proposed for the study would be wasted. He made that argument even before the Budget Committee recently announced it would not consider any raises this year and directed county departments to slash 2013 budgets by 10 percent. If this is the case, though, we don't think the people of Carroll County are so stupid or careless that they need Barr to protect them from themselves.

Then there is always the possibility that the judge has other motives. We won't speculate on those. The final truth is, we have no idea what the judge is thinking, because he has repeatedly refused to explain his actions or his reasoning when we asked nicely.

We just don't get it, judge. And when we call four times in a week asking the same questions, it's because you're not communicating with us, and because we hesitate to quote you repeatedly saying you have no comment, as has unfortunately become so common in our stories. We don't like working this way; it doesn't exactly flatter your image, and it doesn't help our readers any, either.

But we're not giving up, and here's why: When asked about issues overseen by them, a lack of meaningful communication on the part of any public official is both suspect -- as it suggests they either have something to hide or no information or opinion at all (none of which is acceptable in an elected official) -- and it is offensive to the voters who elected them and who deserve to know what is really going on the taxpayer-funded offices that govern this county.

We at Carroll County News are merely trying to act as the voice and the ears of the people of this county -- as the conduit of information for those who are too busy to do the research themselves. We'd be grateful for a little cooperation from our public officials, and we believe the voters would be as well.