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  • Last modified 1212 days ago (July 22, 2015)

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Surviving Gradergate

No marshmallows, but plenty of fire, were in evidence Monday night as the lake hall witnessed what could have been an attempt to set another world record — this one for attendance at a county commission meeting.

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 conducted what, depending on your point of view, was a marathon pillory of the county’s embattled road and bridge superintendent and his bosses or a refreshingly open and civil demonstration of democracy in action, complete with a U.S. flag flying adjacent to the county’s equivalent to London’s speaker’s corner.

The key question, after more than two hours of almost unprecedented venting, is what will happen next. Commissioners rather unusually plan to devote their entire next meeting exclusively to the topic.

Monday night, outspoken chairman Dan Holub incurred almost as much wrath as did road and bridge superintendent Randy Crawford, whose title may have to be formally amended to include the word “embattled” if he somewhat miraculously retains his position.

With talk of townships seceding from county road maintenance, the county replacing commissioners with a professional administrator, and voters throwing the current rascals out, commissioners were equally in the crosshairs.

Although one (Crawford’s wife, Lori Lalouette) remained silent and another (Randy Dallke) remained mainly in the shadows, away from the head table, all three seemed to realize that hitching their political futures to a rationalization of current road and bridge practices and leadership would be akin to mooring dinghies alongside the Titanic.

Whether Crawford and the commissioners can survive Gradergate remains to be seen, but as with so many disputes, there seem to be multiple sides to the story.

Many of the devilish sins road crews were accused of committing — taking excessive breaks while leaving equipment running, for example — appear to be practices Crawford actually was trying to eliminate. Perhaps his approach was too jack-booted; perhaps it wasn’t strict enough. All we know for sure is that what complainers cringed about publicly seemed to cause him to cringe about privately.

Privately, officials also were quick to note that some of the most popularly sainted former road workers actually were among the biggest sinners in a few of these areas.

What’s clear from looking at numbers — though numbers at best tell a confusing story — is that county priorities appear to have shifted somewhat from unpaved roads to paved roads and from actual workers and materials to supervisors and consultants.

While this may have given rise to some of the maintenance shortcomings cited, it’s important to note that when Crawford took over, “embattled” already was part of his department’s name largely because of the sad state of major, supposedly paved roads in the county. One of his first and most laudable actions was to embark on a schedule for bringing those roads back to acceptable levels. If other roads slipped in the process, it is at least understandable.

That doesn’t make things any easier, of course, for those trying to navigate what have become little more than unattended drainage ruts, but they may have to point at least some of their blaming fingers back on themselves.

A constant political drumbeat about never increasing property taxes while simultaneously pushing for new and additional services means something has to give. And experience has proved that the one thing that won’t give is government’s expansive bureaucracy — more offices for more workers pushing more paper and constantly trying to expand rather than contract their roll.

What gives in almost every case is infrastructure — the dull, everyday things like roads that need to be taken care of before anything else. In many regards, government is no better than the average citizen who, confronted with a choice between buying a new flat-screen TV or repairing a leaking roof, invariably chooses the TV — and puts the whole purchase on credit, thinking only of monthly payments. Only when his credit card gets maxed out and the roof collapses, destroying the TV, does he complain.

It’s time for those of us content to sit on the couch and watch to get in the game and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The time for recrimination has passed. Now let’s roll up our sleeves and start fixing things.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified July 22, 2015

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