Taking a new job apparently freed up former York County Manager Jim Baker to speak candidly about how the county operates and what it must do to change. The assessment was scalding.
Baker, who left York County to accept a similar job in Chesapeake, Va., thinks York County needs to move beyond its culture of a “sleepy rural county,” where only an elite few hold the reins of power. He believes that, with effort and exhortation from the public, the county could become a major player in the region.
But getting there won’t be easy, he said. It will require an entire culture change to bring the county “up to modern times.” And if things don’t change, “we will be dismissed as the hicks from York County who don’t get their act together,” he said earliler this month on his last day on the job.
Baker will make more money at his new job. But frustration with some members of the county council and the county’s inability to move forward on key projects or to address long-term needs also helped spur his departure.
Baker has professed his fondness for the county, and he will maintain a home here for after he retires, he said. So his criticisms don’t stem from disdain for the county as a whole or lack of respect for the staff he led.
But that should add more heft to his critique. It is a form of tough love, and county residents should be listening.
Baker worries that, despite some improvement, the council verges on being dysfunctional. He was especially critical of the the fact that some members criticize county staffers during meetings.
He also was dismayed by the petty sniping among council members, which has included name-calling and even members walking out of meetings to protest actions by fellow council members. The council, he said, often has trouble keeping order during meetings.
All this, Baker warned, makes the county appear unprofessional.
“I preached all along about how staff and council are partners. If one looks bad, all look bad. York County is professional, or it’s not,” he said.
The solution, he said, must come from the people. They must show they won’t tolerate the bickering and the lack of decorum.
And change might have to occur in the voting booths.
Baker’s assessment is not flattering but it certainly could be constructive if residents take heed. And there is good reason why Baker deserves a hearing.
He was an unusually effective county manager. Despite now unburdening himself about issues he had with the council, he was unfailingly discreet about differences with the council during his tenure.
As he noted, he leaves York County in better financial shape than what he inherited. The county invested $75 million in improving county facilities on his watch. The county staff, under his guidance, also shored up the Pennies for Progress road improvement program after it got behind schedule and over budget under outside management.
Pennies for Progress is a good example how a past county regime, coordinating efforts between staff and council and working with state officials, devised a roads program that was the envy of every county in the state. That represented real leadership and enlightened planning.
Baker is right, the citizens of York County need to demand a return of that type of leadership. Baker was a gifted proponent of such progressive thinking, and the county will miss him.
We can only hope his successor will be able to continue that legacy – and that the county council will be a partner, not a hindrance.