Conduit Street Q&A with 2016 MACo President John Barr

The Conduit Street Q&A is our opportunity to get closer to the policymakers and public leaders who affect Maryland and its counties. We’ll ask questions about the person, the policy, and the politics – and let their answers bring you valuable insights on the biggest issues of today and tomorrow.

This week, we catch up with Washington County Commissioner & 2016 MACo President John Barr.

MACo: Commissioner Barr, this exchange feels a little formal for someone who has become such a part of the MACo “family,” but we thought it would be good for readers – including those who don’t know you – to hear a bit about the role as MACo President and what you brought to it. Thanks for joining us.

So, we’d like to start before your time with MACo. You’ve been in private business for years, but pretty engaged in the community. What got you interested in civic life, and giving back to the local community?

Barr: I became active in civic life at a young age. I can still remember delivering vegetables and sweet corn alongside my Grandfather in the east side of Hagerstown when I was a teenager. Later, when I joined the family business, serving the community and giving back to others was a key component of our work to be a good corporate citizen.

MACo: And you found that type of engagement rewarding?

Yes. In fact, when I look back, many of my greatest and fondest memories are serving on the Boards of the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, Habitat for Humanity, and numerous charitable organizations that benefit our community.

John and Grandkids
Commissioner Barr and his wife pose for a family portrait with their grandchildren.

MACo: Years ago, you also decided to run for office. What made you step over the line from community involvement to politics?

Barr: Well, having been involved in the community, I was appointed to the Washington County Election Board of Examiners and Supervisors in the early 2000’s. On the Election Board, I especially enjoyed helping enfranchise senior citizens through absentee and provisional ballots. Once I visited a gentlemen that was over 100 years of age and had voted in every election since 1920.

MACo: So, it was through your participation in the Election Board that your were tempted to run for election yourself?

In a way, yes. After serving four and a half years on the Election Board, I was bit by the political bug and I decided to enter the race for County Commissioner. My campaign netted the most votes in the race, meaning I also became the President of the Board of County Commissioners in my first year in office.

Ellsworth Electric - John F. Barr and son Jonathan Barr
Barr, pictured here with his son Jonny, is the President of Ellsworth Electric, a family-owned business with a long history in Washington County.

MACo: Your first run for office was a bit tumultuous. Care to share?

Barr: By the time I ran for public office, I had served on many Boards and participated in several community-interest projects. The time I’d spent in the public eye led my opponents to say I was using money, power, and influence to run my campaign. This was difficult, but then in the height of campaign season, I had another challenge to surmount, this time a physical one: I hit a deer while riding my motorcycle and sustained multiple injuries.

MACo: That must have been a shock. . . How did you manage your campaign following the accident?

Well, I kept going. Less than a week following the accident, which had me in the hospital for five days, I was sitting on a stage of potential candidates with a head full of staples and stitches, two black eyes, and a broken shoulder. I will never forget one of the incumbent candidates asking me what I was doing there. I replied that serving the people and representing our community was not a job for the faint of heart.

John F. Barr, far left, served for more than ten years on the Washington County Board of County Commissioners.

MACo: That was quite a start to your political career!…So now that you’ve been in office for ten years plus, worked with three Board of County Commissioners, and have seen lots of things come and go in Washington County. What are some things you are most proud of back home?

Barr: Looking back over more than 10 years as a Commissioner, there are highs and lows, joys and disappointments. The biggest reward has been working with the many fine, talented individuals Washington County government. I have also developed rewarding relationships, and found opportunities for growth and personal development on each Board of County Commissioners that I have served.

MACo: Any particular projects that standout?

Yes, I see bringing major employers, such as Potomac Edison, back to Hagerstown and Washington County as achievement. Enhancing relationships with the City of Hagerstown, eight other municipalities, the school board, the sheriff’s office and others is another tremendous accomplishment. These advances make Washington County a better place to work, live, and play.

MACo: Okay, now a bit selfishly we’d like to turn to MACo. After serving a while in county government, you started coming to MACo Legislative Committee meetings, and soon after that got elected to the Board of Directors. What did you find in MACo that was worthwhile?

Barr: Through MACo, I met new colleagues from across the State of Maryland. I found the diversity of county elected officials exciting, and I began to see MACo as a way to serve in a new, broader capacity.

MACo: Tell us more about your first impressions, what was it like to start attending MACo meetings as a newcomer?

I will never forget arriving at MACo for my first meeting: everyone asked me where I spent the night because in their opinion it was impossible to travel from Hagerstown to Annapolis for a 10 a.m. meeting without coming the day before. Truth be told, prior to even leaving Hagerstown that morning I spent an hour at my private business and an hour at county offices, and I was still in Annapolis with time to spare!

Cutting the ribbon to the exhibitor hall at MACo’s Summer Conference. Commissioner Barr’s tenure as President was a period of growth for MACo’s corporate partnerships.

MACo: Little did you know how often you’d be making the trip in the future…You took the reins as MACo President in 2016, and on top of the many trips to Annapolis during that year, one of your first goals was to get out to visit every county before the Summer Conference. Why was that important to you?

Barr: Coming from a county on the westernmost corner of the State, I was eager to reach out to all county governments, and Baltimore City. Prioritizing the visits allowed me to continue MACo’s role in developing relationships between county elected officials statewide. Accomplishing all of the visits before the MACo Summer Conference set the stage for a productive and successful Summer Conference and I think may have had a connection to our record turnout, too.

MACo: What was your impression of your colleagues from across the State? 

Commissioner Barr speaks with Delegate Wilson of Washington County. Photo courtesy of The Herald-Mail.

Barr: The county visits impressed on me the extent to which local elected officials all serve with heart. They all have a passion for doing good, and a willingness to improve the quality of life in their local communities to allow Maryland to be the best that it can be.

MACo: Any key policy takeaways from the county visits?

Yes, definitely. Across the state, I heard a common message: counties simply cannot keep up with proper road maintenance at the current, historically low, funding levels.

MACo: That’s certainly been a front-and-center topic for MACo over the past few years; but it must’ve been different to hear it directly from your colleagues, and to observe road maintenance issues while travelling statewide, too. Any other topics of common concern?

I also realized the extent to which our State’s geography affects not only my home county, but many others. In Washington County, we are very aware of cross-border pressures on our businesses and services. At its narrow point, the county spans less than two miles from the West Virginia and Pennsylvania borders. But over the course of my visits, I saw that these border issues arise in every part of Maryland. Many of us compete for residents and businesses with surrounding states who offer a dramatically different mix of taxes, regulations, labor standards, and quality-of-life offerings.

MACo: What did you do with the feedback you received?

Throughout my travels, myself and MACo staff documented what we heard in our meetings. After all twenty-four visits were complete, I wrote a three and a half page letter to the Governor describing the points of universal concern among county governments that had emerged. While visiting the State House around Christmas, Governor Hogan acknowledged the year that MACo had in 2016.

barr walker pickrum.jpg
Commissioner Barr shares a laugh with MACo Board Members, Commissioner Pickrum of Kent County and Council Member Walker of Anne Arundel County.

MACo: Sometimes we hear that MACo’s membership is so diverse – with big and small counties, with suburban and rural settings – that it must be hard for us to agree on anything. What did you sense from talking with elected officials from every corner of the state?

Barr: MACo’s diverse membership means that there will be some challenges, however there are more opportunities for agreement than one may think. In my experience, local government officials generally share three common goals: public safety, public education, and public infrastructure.

MACo: In the year that you were President of MACo, what did you find was the best way to bridge gaps?

When it comes down to it, we are all passionate about serving others and do so with great enthusiasm, energy, and heart. In most of our visits I found that my colleagues wanted to chat, ask questions and have dialogue well beyond the allotted scheduled visit time frame. Many followed-up in phone calls and writing. Sometimes just lending an ear can bridge what may perceive to be potential differences.

barr hogan.jpg
Commissioner Barr developed a strong working relationship with Governor Hogan during his time as MACo President.

MACo: You also developed quite a relationship with Governor Hogan. How did you two “click” so well?

Barr: As the incoming President of MACo, I had the opportunity to spend nearly three hours speaking with Governor and Mrs. Hogan at my inaugural banquet at MACo’s Winter Conference in Dorchester County, Maryland. With that evening as a starting point, we had an open dialogue on many topics throughout my year as MACo President.

MACo: Sometimes MACo’s position align with the Governor’s Office, and other times not. How did you maintain that initial connection throughout the year’s policy developments?

I think that being open-minded, available, hardworking, and respectful of his time helped to sustain our working relationship. Also, the ability to discuss policy matters from the standpoint of being a businessman and an electrician, in addition to being an elected official, helped our connection. For example, on the topic of school construction, I was able to speak with the Governor about costly contracting practices I had observed firsthand, and share how these costly practices pressure county budgets.

MACo: So, with your year in MACo’s top job behind you…how would you describe what MACo has to offer to newly elected officials or those who have not been as involved as you have?

Barr: MACo’s position in Annapolis and its commitment to representing the interests of all twenty-four local jurisdictions in Maryland is superb. MACo is blessed with tremendously talented and hardworking staff and concerned and dedicated elected officials.

MACo: Any advice for elected officials looking to become more active in MACo?

I would urge all county elected officials to participate in the MACo Legislative Committee as a member or an alternate while in office. Serving on the MACo Legislative Committee, I have seen respect and comradery develop across both sides of the aisle, and between representatives of urban and rural interests. It has been a life-changing educational opportunity.

Also, through attending Summer and Winter Conferences and taking advantage of other educational offerings, county elected officials become better government servants and better stewards of the public.

MACo: Thank you for your kind words and everything you have done and continue to do for Maryland counties and our association. We look forward to continuing our relationship with you!