Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Former Commissioner Nelson Decries Party Politics, Stresses Managerial Competence

The guest at Wednesday's weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Lancaster was Former County Commissioner and recent Convention Center Authority appointee Sharron Nelson.

Dr. Nelson offered some opinions on what it takes to be a good leader.

She decried the prominent role political ideology plays within government, calling instead for competent managers.

"I think we all must understand that ideology has little application at the County level," she said.

"Most of the County's role," she pointed out, "involves the delivery of mandated services."

"Local politics is about roads and bridges and crime and snow removal. It is about schools and garbage collection. Don't let ideologies confuse you about what's important in most of our lives," Nelson continued.

"Competency means more than family relations when managing a business," she said, arguing that County Government calls for many of the same qualifications.

"Lancaster County is now the fourth-largest employer in the area...We can no longer afford to elect or appoint but the most competent people to manage a 300-million dollar budget."

In order to illustrate her point that competence should trump ideology, she told a story about two politicians.

"One," she began, "actually attended church every Sunday, taught Sunday school, was highly active in Habitat for Humanity and believed that to even think sinful thoughts was wrong."

"The other was a divorced man with an estranged daughter and son who was once a liberal union president and then flip-flopped to being a supply-side conservative."

"You know which was which," Nelson said. "Which would you choose as your child's Godfather and which was the more effective president? Confidence in a proven union leader, Ronald Reagan, trumped the honest Christian values of Jimmy Carter when it came to predicting a successful presidency."

She also cited the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson was running against Aaron Burr. Jefferson, who had substantial experience as a Virginia Legislator, wrote the Declaration of Independence, and played a pivotal role in lobbying for a Bill of Rights, was painted by his opponents as an atheist or a deist while Burr was the son of a minister and studied theology in college.

"Fortunately, competence trumped shared values in the House of Representatives in the tie-breaking vote," Nelson said. Jefferson went on to become a commanding President while Burr was nearly hanged for Treason for attempting to establish his own nation on the frontier.

Dr. Nelson explained, "I'm not saying that values don't count, but that values cannot be translated into effective governance without proven leadership skills."

With regard to the Commissioners, she opined, "Clearly under our 3-Commissioner system, the Commissioners cannot easily discuss or mutually investigate matters that they are about to consider without the possibility of violating the Sunshine Law."

"By increasing the number to 5 or 7 or whatever," she continued, "they could legally re-organize into subcommittees, each of which would be responsible for different aspects of the overarching responsibility, this giving them an opportunity to gain a more collective command of the ideas and exchange views and information."

"I think in the long run this would ensure more informed public debate and certainly more informed decision-making," Nelson concluded.

Asked by an audience member whether she feels the County Executive should be elected or appointed, Nelson opined that such an individual should be appointed, citing the concern that if both the County Executive and the County Commissioners are elected, it could lead to excessive political conflict.

Nelson said that Lancaster County needs good managers to help it address all of the issues it must deal with in our changing world.

"We in Lancaster are ideally situated to serve the urban markets in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington," she said, citing the County as a tourist destination.

"Our much-maligned Convention Center can capitalize on that if we work together to make it a success."