If you think county roads have it rough, try being the county roads superintendent. Deserved or not, the county roads crew and its boss often have to confront as many political potholes as they do real ones.
Two weeks ago, we tried to make a point about how grant money can create ironies. At a time when the county contends it doesn’t have enough money to keep roads from being washed-out mudholes or (when dry) washboards, the state comes along, offering to pay for shiny new signs and most of the cost of having an engineer inspect them for safety problems.
True, new regulations say our signs aren’t shiny enough and someday will have to be replaced. It’s also never a bad idea to have a safety expert make sure signs are positioned properly. Still, it feels a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic to worry about signs and positioning when the biggest hazard to warn of might be the roads themselves.
It’s not the roads department’s fault, of course, that whoever provides grant money (which ultimately are our own tax dollars) wants to pay for gravy instead of meat and potatoes for a starving road system, but road superintendent Randy Crawford caught much of the grief anyway.
Then, last week, we received a letter accusing him of patronage — providing a job as a reward for a supporter of his wife’s campaign to become a county commissioner. For a variety of reasons, some of them personal, it didn’t ring true. We attempted to reach him for comment before publishing the letter, but his work schedule didn’t allow that. So the allegation went out without an answer from him or the person he hired — the ultimate victim here, accused by innuendo of getting his job solely because of who he knows.
As it turns out, the connection between the hiree and the spouse of one of the people who hired him appears totally coincidental — the type of thing that often happens in small communities.
As Crawford tells it — and we have absolutely no reason to doubt him, especially since he openly names names — the man in question wasn’t even the first choice for the job.
The first choice turned it down because it didn’t pay enough. Another applicant, upon hearing what the job entailed, withdrew. Among the two remaining applicants, one didn’t have supervisory experience, and the other had 20 years as a lieutenant in Wichita’s fire department. He also happened to have been treasurer of Crawford’s wife’s campaign, but that, according to all involved, isn’t why Crawford, his top assistant, and the county commissioners picked him.
County roads aren’t going to fix themselves overnight. Sometimes, drastic measures — like bluntly whacking off overhanging hedge rows instead of carefully trimming them — may be necessary. We all have grown tired of hearing how Marion County has too many roads. We all wonder why they used to be better. But we also forget that bigger, more spread-out farms with semis instead of half-ton pickups take their toll. And our memories can be a bit fuzzy, too. If you’re old enough, you probably remember when 190th Rd. was US-56 and seemed to be an extra-wide, ultramodern highway. It didn’t suddenly become a narrow strip of blacktop with virtually no shoulders. Our standards have instead increased.
Whether Crawford and company will be able to fill or at least navigate around all the potholes, political and real, remains to be seen. So far, they appear to be taking the right approach — cleaning up work procedures, creating long-range plans and priority lists, looking for grants (even ironic “gravy” grants) where possible, and trying to cope with specialized engineering requirements that would make it extremely difficult for the county to revert to a system of having a single county engineer plan projects to avoid the need for outside consultants.
Bureaucracies will always be wasteful in some regards, but this particular bureaucracy seems to be doing better than most in trying to become more efficient. Regarding them as the whipping boy — the way we often automatically think negative thoughts of phone and cable repair people, postal workers, and the like — doesn’t fix a single pothole.
— ERIC MEYER