Opening night for Northumberland County's commissioners began as an oddly obscure operetta -- less Gilbert and Sullivan, more Marx Brothers -- featuring well-rehearsed lines about which federal authority to summon over a badly administered housing grant.
Gripping material, it was not. Nonetheless, Commission Chair Vinny Clausi and Minority Commissioner Richard Shoch delivered their dialogue passionately, often simultaneously, expressing characterization and resentment that both astonished and confused.
Third Commissioner Stephen Bridy, appearing as a disembodied voice on speaker phone from his unspecified mission on county business in far-off North Carolina, added to this volatile mix a vaguely separatist motion encouraging Northumberland County to defy any federal law which appeared to conflict with Constitutionally guaranteed rights.
Though neither of his colleagues raised the possibility that an entire branch of government, called the judiciary and headed by a Supreme Court, was available for that sort of effort, Bridy's motion died, as it had previously, for the lack of a second.
A small band of several dozen citizens who gathered to see this rare evening session of government remained attentive, neither especially amused nor enthralled.
Controller Tony Phillips asked, deferentially, if he might interject for the record that the county administered a vast variety of state and federal grants -- $11 million worth -- with experience and aplomb, no questions asked, hinting that the dramatic differences being expressed were an exception to a rule of unseen competence and cohesion.
Eventually, the display arched into other acts, settling into a thoughtful appeal by Commissioner Shoch for broad-based research into prison reform so Northumberland County could break a cycle of expensive recidivism as the county looks for a solution to its aging and inadequate facility.
A public comment period drew a testy exchange from Point Township officials followed by respectful appeals for environmental conservation to be included in any prison-building plans. A few complimentary speakers thanked the county board for holding a meeting at a time when working people could see their government in action.
As the night wore on, the presence of engaged and interested citizens seemed to have a calming and civilizing effect. The early dialogue was divisive, performed habitually for headline writers. The later discussion shifted to a more business-like forward tilt.
It was just one experiment, but it appears that better governance may result in Northumberland County from a good crowd of voters in the room.