They always say the key to getting ahead in life is in who you know.
Nowhere is that more true than in Schuylkill County, especially on the local political scene.
And we haven’t seen a better, more clear case of that than in the 2020 appointment of Barron Hetherington as the newest Schuylkill County Commissioner. Let’s just say, when the Courthouse went looking for a Commissioner, it didn’t exactly cast the widest proverbial net to find one.
Hetherington was appointed Commissioner in 2020 after the sudden death of longtime Commissioner Frank Staudenmeier.
More than 50 people answered a call from the Courthouse following Staudenmeier’s death to apply to be his replacement. They were told there would be interviews and that a replacement would be chosen among them.
However, there were no interviews conducted. Those 50-plus people who applied basically wasted their valuable time and effort in doing that.
In the end, the choice for the next Commissioner was apparently done on the basis of who knew who.
That was pretty well spelled out in a recently released deposition testimony of the eventual choice for Schuylkill County Commissioner back in 2020, Hetherington.
The current Commissioners Chairman detailed how he presumes he was chosen as Staudenmeier’s replacement. And testimony from the likely-outgoing Commissioner George Halcovage details how Hetherington is the local establishment GOP choice for Commissioner.
Permanent Politicians in Schuylkill County Love Boots
Now, it’s not as if Hetherington was some unknown prior to his installment as Commissioner a few years ago. He had gained somewhat of a public profile.
Hetherington never won any major elected office in the area but he’s not exactly a political novice, even though he loves to claim he’s just a farmer when it’s convenient for his political arguments at the Courthouse.
He’s hardly just a farmer and in his testimony, he shed a little more light on that.
The Appointment and the “Application Process”
There were supposed to be interviews. But there weren’t. Presumably, the judges of the Common Pleas Court knew all the applicants for County Commissioner and didn’t need to conduct them.
That must be why they picked Hetherington. In testimony given on March 31, 2023, the Commissioner explained to Catherine Smith, the attorney representing 4 Jane Doe plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Halcovage and County government, as a whole, how the process to pick him worked, as best he knew.
Smith: Prior to being appointed County commissioner, were you interviewed by anyone from the County?
Hetherington: Was I? I don’t understand.
Smith: Did you have an interview of any sort?
Hetherington: Oh, before? No.
Smith: Before being appointed commissioner?
Hetherington: I don’t quite understand that. It was an application process, but I was never interviewed.
Smith: Okay. Well, can you explain the application process?
Hetherington: The judges put out notice that Mr. Staudenmeier passed away, and by my understanding, by state law, the Common Pleas Court Judges pick a replacement, and they asked for applications. And I submitted one.
Smith: Okay. And then after you submitted the application, what else happened in regards to your appointment prior to you being appointed?
Hetherington: Nothing. I was — nothing.
Smith: You were just called up and told you were appointed?
Smith: Okay. Do you recall who was the one that called you and informed you that you were appointed?
Hetherington: President Judge William Baldwin.
Or, perhaps, the reason Hetherington was picked goes back a bit, like way back.
In fact, the reason Hetherington is your County Commissioner since 2020 could be a connection he has with a key figure at the Courthouse dating way back to the Ronald Reagan era of Republican politics.
From deposition testimony Hetherington gave that day, it’s revealed that he and County Administrator Gary Bender have a connection dating back into the 1980s, at least.
Here’s how that conversation transpired between Hetherington and Smith:
Smith: Did you know Mr. Bender before you became County commissioner?
Hetherington: Yes, ma’am.
Smith: When did you come to meet Mr. Bender?
Hetherington: Oh, way, way back. He and my father were co-chairs of the Reagan for President campaign in the County. Mr. Bender was also our county party chairman, so …
Smith: So would you say that this connection — connections you just described, did they lead you to know Defendant Bender or did you just know of him?
Hetherington: Oh, no. I know him. He was — like I say, because of the family connection and because of being our county party chairman prior to becoming a County employee, I knew him quite well.
Smith: Okay. And he was County Administrator when you were appointed; correct?
Hetherington: Yes, ma’am.
Smith: Would you consider yourself and Mr. Bender friends?
Hetherington: Yes, ma’am
Boots and the Establishment GOP in Schuylkill County
During Halcovage’s deposition, the presumably outgoing Commissioner noted another reason why Hetherington may have been selected to replace Staudenmeier over others.
Halcovage didn’t seem to have many friends, at least in recent years, among the higher-ups within the Schuylkill County Republican Party.
That’s not the case with Hetherington, as we just noted. And it seems, at least according to Halcovage, that he’s in the process of building bridges with the top brass again. That’s why they seem to be backing him fully in his election campaign in 2023.
Halcovage was asked by Smith about his so-called “inner-sanctum” during his deposition last year.
Smith: I think yesterday you used the term inner-sanctum when you were talking about Commissioner Hetherington [and] said — I think you said something about he had an inner sanctum. Do you remember that?
Halcovage: Yeah. People that he felt he confided in, sure.
Smith: Right. Who — who were those people that you thought were in his inner-sanctum?
Halcovage: Since he’s been appointed commissioner, Senator Argall, Representative Knowles, Representative Tobash, Representative Kerwin, Christine Verdier, different people that — with him wanting to run for reelection, he’s trying to build relationships with.
Halcovage said he didn’t have such an inner-sanctum. And that seems to pre-date his legal troubles, too.
Boots the Buffoon?
But does Bender consider Hetherington a friend? Maybe he’s a friend but the Administrator may not think too highly of him as a Commissioner.
In a line of questioning, Smith asked Hetherington – somewhat out of the blue – “Are you aware Defendant Bender referred to you as a ‘buffoon’ when you were appointed Commissioner?”
Hetherington wasn’t ready for this throw from left field from the attorney. He replied, “I’m sorry?”
Smith reiterated her question, “Are you aware that Defendant Bender referred to you as a ‘buffoon’ when you were appointed Commissioner.”
Hetherington answered, “No, I’m not aware of that.”
That’s as far as the line of questioning went, oddly.
We searched Bender’s testimony and the testimony of all the others released and couldn’t find an instance in which the word ‘buffoon’ was used.
Never Meanin’ No Harm
Regardless of that alleged strange exchange, the relationship these two have shared – in some form or another dating back some 40 years – may have been the reason the Courthouse ignored the 50 or so other people who showed an interest in being Staudenmeier’s replacement and went with the known entity in Hetherington.
They call it the “Good Ol’ Boys Network” for a reason.
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