News Section: Commentary
Shoes Too Big to be Filled
When the Manatee County Commission convenes on the 27th of this month, it will do so without Commissioner Joe McClash's nameplate on the dais for the first time in 22 years. In McClash, long targeted for removal by developers who did not appreciate his smart growth land use philosophy, the board loses more than a critical voice of dissent. On a commission where four of the seven members were serving their first term, the value of McClash's deep wealth of institutional knowledge had never been so obvious than the last two years.
The county commission is one of the toughest political offices to master. The board covers such a broad swath of public business that there is no private or public sector career field that can even come close to fully preparing a newly-elected official. Once elected, members have two choices: roll up their shirt sleeves and master a daunting array of material, or lean heavily on the expertise of others, trusting both their competence and intentions, though it's hard to imagine that's what the voters who elected them had in mind.
|Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash|
I've known Joe for almost three years, which is how long I've been the editor of this publication, which he founded about a year before I came on board with the honest intention of getting more people interested in their local government, while providing deeper and more complete coverage than was available elsewhere for those already paying close attention. The interview for that job never included ideological questions or any sort of litmus test. He'd read my work, so I can only assume he'd been aware that we had some stark philosophical differences. His instructions were pretty simple: tell the truth, quote accurately and spell peoples' names correctly. When we reported the news, we would report it straight and when we provided opinion we would do it with the facts solidly on our side. As long as that was the case, there were no sacred cows.
Joe and I don't often socialize or talk about many things not related to politics. But over the last three years, we have spent countless hours in my office debating issues, disagreeing, proposing solutions and generally playing devil's advocate to each other as we try to imagine feasible solutions to the complicated problems facing our society. Over that time, I've gotten to know him rather well in terms of how he thinks and what guides his decisions. He's often referred to as stubborn, but to me that sounds too pejorative for something that comes from a good place. It might be better said that Commissioner McClash is principled to a fault. He's an honest man with a moral code so ironclad, that my secret nickname for him is the Last Boy Scout.
In my humble opinion, Joe's greatest strength is his intellectual curiosity. When he takes even a slight interest in something, he invests the time in learning it well, and if it stokes the fire in his belly, he can become almost obsessive in seeking a subject's mastery. He's what they call in sports, a student of the game. This serves him well as a commissioner, because he simply doesn't like to be involved in making decisions if he doesn't fully understand the issue from the perspective of all stakeholders. That discomfort leads him to ask a lot of questions. When he doesn't get answers that make sense to him, he tends to get skeptical, and so he does his homework. After 22 years of this approach to the office, suffice it to say, Commissioner McClash knows his stuff.
Anyone with that sort of tenure would be described as “experienced,” so it's important to make the distinction between time served and expertise gathered. As a result of the tenacity to which he's approached the office, McClash has spent most of his time in service as the most knowledgeable and capable member of the board. Whether it's building roads and bridges, annexing land, developing tourism interest, maintaining facilities or marketing our port, he can speak intelligently and sniff out B.S. when someone tries to slip a fast one. There's also an intangible that accompanies the confidence bred by such studious efforts. Those sort of people tend to be more comfortable admitting when they don't know or understand something, because they lack the defensiveness and insecurity that someone going through the motions often brings to the table. That dynamic will be sorely missed.
An avid boater and fisherman, McClash will finally have
more time to spend on the water.
The board will also lose someone whose pragmatic sense of compromise has become all too rare in modern politics. Like I said, we don't agree on a lot of bedrock philosophical items, but the vast majority of times we arrive at the same conclusion in terms of policy, because common sense tends to trump ideological purity among reasonable men. Joe McClash is what I call a commonsense conservative. He has deeply-held beliefs that are rooted in an ideological mindset, but he's not the kind of guy who cuts off his nose to spite his face – or who starts every debate from the assumption that his position is infallible. When he knows he isn't going to get his way, he's also smart enough to start looking for strategies in which he can avoid walking away from the table empty handed. As a result, many of the fights he's lost have had less dire consequences than had he fought them with an all-or-nothing mindset, and for that, his constituents should be thankful.
Today's county commission, like too many municipal government entities, has become increasingly dominated by politicians – people for whom it seems securing and keeping the office is the end game, rather than the means to effect meaningful change. Closely covering local governments gives you a bird's eye view into the people who serve them. It also presents you with the same choice as a commissioner: come to know the subject matter very well, or lean heavily on what you're told by others. I don't need to tell you that people who work for Joe McClash's outfit don't really have that choice, and when I moved to West Bradenton to oversee a publication that was intensely focused on local government, I knew I had to eat, sleep and drink municipal policy and politics eight days a week since most of my expertise had been in state and national affairs.
When it comes to the county commission, what I've seen firsthand as both an editor and a taxpayer is a dynamic in which a few members routinely show up with stacks of documentation, having talked to all stakeholders and usually having some valid, well-informed concerns about issues that would otherwise pass without a whisper, while the rest seem to show up knowing much less, but are nevertheless unwavering in their support.
What troubles me, is that the former always seem to be on the losing side these days, while the latter continue to get their way. This raises the very important question of who and what is informing their decisions. The fact that they tend to be the same candidates who are so generously supported by the interests those decisions tend to benefit offers at least one clue. The close relationship they all seem to enjoy with the county administrator might offer another. But in terms of public interest, elected officials are the only ones under any real oversight. Staff and administration are not bound by the same sunshine laws, nor do bureaucrats serve at the pleasure of the citizenry, who cannot vote them in or out of their positions.
|At sea with son Sean, daughter Megan and wife Casey|
But if you're a mediocre public servant who has spent your time in office attending every rubber chicken dinner, social club meeting, and partisan black tie affair, and still find the more nuanced matters of municipal policy rather complicated and perhaps even boring, what choice do you have but to listen to those who know much more, especially if their ideas are keeping those who support your campaigns happy? This is too often how modern municipal government works. A commissioner or a councilperson or a school board member gets elected at the hands of special interests, votes on their behalf and gets publicly honored for their visionary leadership so often that they begin to believe the nonsensical inscriptions on the plaques that litter their office walls. Eventually there are so many schools and parks and roads dedicated to such people that even they must start to think that it's something more than a trade-out for all of that rubber-stamping.
Joe McClash has never been one for award banquets, or trading his influence for seats on boards and things that could be named after him. Suffice it to say there are no cushy six-figure jobs waiting for his kids in return for him having played the game. A lot his supporters were angered by the way his public service was ended – a hatchet job by the industry he'd fought only to strike a balance between his native community's inevitable growth and development and the maintenance of its charm and wonder – so much so, that nearly 6,000 of them wrote his name on Tuesday's ballot in protest.
But while his grandchildren will never see his name on buildings or a statue of his likeness in a park, they'll know that his service to this community lives on and can be seen in a manner much more fitting his personality than such instruments of vanity. They'll know it when they breathe the clean air he fought to save, walk on the green space he helped to preserve and raise his descendants in a beautiful community that he loved enough to serve so selflessly, without expecting anything in return. For Joe McClash, public service was just that – serving the public – and the way he went about it should be a model for every commissioner yet to come.