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Schuylkill County News

Hess “Cautiously Optimistic” About New Schuylkill Commissioners Board

With ongoing and potentially new legal troubles, Commissioner Gary Hess may want to steer clear.

Gary Hess, the lone Democrat of the Schuylkill County Commissioners, is ready to begin his 4th term in office.

For the previous 12 years and 3 terms, he’s been the minority Commissioner, essentially rendered powerless at the Courthouse. He’ll serve in that capacity once again for his 4th term.

During the last 3-plus years, he’s had a front-row seat to a lot of bickering and in-fighting among his colleagues, Commissioner Boots Hetherington and former Commissioner George Halcovage.

But that front-row seat really hasn’t gotten him very close to the decision-making process at the Courthouse. Often, it’s clear he’s on the outside looking in on decisions already made before the Commissioners commence public meetings.

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And it’s been frustrating for him.

One of the things that frustrated Schuylkill County Commissioner Gary Hess the most in the last few years was how COVID relief money was spent. He believes more should have gone to help businesses and non-profit groups. (Coal Region Canary photo)

Will that change in 2024 and going forward as he starts his 13th year in office? Or will it be more of the same?

The Canary spoke with Hess shortly after his latest election victory in November 2023 and asked him what he’s hopeful for in the coming year, especially with respect to the newest Commissioner, Republican Larry Padora.

Hess said he’s “cautiously optimistic” for the new year. And he’s hopeful for changes over the way it’s been at the Courthouse, especially recently.

“If you continue doing the same thing over and over, you’re going to get the same results,” he said. “Some things you see happening and you don’t agree with them.”


To anyone watching Commissioners meetings, it’s very clear that Hess is often left out of the loop on a lot of issues.

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He expressed his frustration with that in our interview.

“You should include rather than exclude,” he said. “You have a Board of Commissioners. You need to all be on the same page.”

One of the areas where he definitely felt excluded was in how the millions of dollars in COVID relief money was spent and continues to be spent. That includes money gotten from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act. It’s tens of millions of dollars and it’s nearly all gone.

“It’s been very frustrating, especially when you get all this money,” Hess said. “If we disagree, we need to find the middle. The word ‘compromise’ has gone out of the vocabulary.”

He believes the County government should have been more generous with giving money from CARES and ARPA to local businesses and non-profit groups.

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“More money should have gone there. Businesses were struggling,” he said. “Non-profits are an extension of County government trying to keep folks alive. Those are some of the things that frustrated me.”

The Next 4 Years and “The Fog”

There were times in the last 3 years that it was obvious Hess (left) was not in the room when key decisions were being made at the Courthouse. Hess is “cautiously optimistic” that that can change in the new term. (Coal Region Canary photo)

As far as the next 4 years go at the Courthouse, again, Hess said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the prospects.

“There are a lot of tough decisions in the next 4 years,” he said.

One issue he seems to be in agreement on with his fellow Commissioners this year is the idea of a pre-release prison. He, Padora, and Hetherington have all publicly stated their intent to get that plan into action as soon as possible.

Padora and Hetherington told The Canary on Election Night it’s one of their top priorities.

Hess believes the County’s own pre-release prison is “going to save the County a lot of money.”

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Cost will be a major factor on how fast the Commissioners act on those plans.

One thing that could make it difficult is growing legal troubles at the Courthouse.

When we spoke to Hess, it was not known that there may be another lawsuit against former Commissioner Halcovage and other County officials in the offing. That was only made public last week. (See more: Jane Doe 5?)

Considering how much the legal bills are for the ongoing, similar lawsuit from 2021, a new lawsuit not only could make lofty goals like a pre-release prison more of a pipe dream than a reality, but it could lead to some major personnel changes at the Courthouse.

Regarding the ongoing legal troubles at the Courthouse, Hess described them as an obstruction to the Commissioners governing.

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“There’s a fog there. Hopefully the fog is going to clear,” he said, again prior to any knowledge of a potential new lawsuit. “We need to start to govern in the right way that’s good for Schuylkill County. We can’t have that inner friction.

On Padora

This year, the Commissioners will have a new Chairman in newly-elected Padora. It’s a chance for a bit of a fresh start for the board and Hess.

Time and actions will tell how this trio works together or doesn’t. Again, at times in the last 3 years with Hetherington holding the gavel, things have been contentious.

Hetherington would sometimes act as though he and Hess were working together on issues, but it’s very obvious they weren’t on others.

“I’ve worked with Commissioner Hetherington for one term. Larry, I know a little bit,” Hess said. “I don’t know about in the leadership role. He knows government a little bit. I don’t know dealing with him one-on-one. I’m hoping we can work together to make things happen.

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“I always wanted to help rather than be an obstruction. Government is only as good as the strong will of the people. You’ve got to deliver to your customers,” Hess added.

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  1. James EISENHART Jr.

    January 2, 2024 at 4:31 am

    One has to wonder about the Schuylkill county voter. Both of the H guys voted to reassess the county. Everyone is up in arms,but RE-ELECT those two guys?
    A change might have been better.

    Of course Padora could always get him a job,he’s promised ten plus,what’s one more?

  2. Tom

    January 2, 2024 at 8:10 am

    Keep hope alive, Mr Hess! Time will tell.

  3. Coalregion12

    January 2, 2024 at 9:20 am

    The pre-release center is only going to happen with a bond issuance. This will saddle the county with debt in the future. The current jail is in desperate need of fixing first. How about making new jail/pre-release center with a neighboring County? Carbon, Northumberland etc.?

  4. Val

    January 2, 2024 at 11:32 am

    What “fog” is he talking about? His job is to make sure there is no fog. Pathetic talking head.

  5. It's me

    January 3, 2024 at 12:22 pm

    Best wishes Mr. Hess.

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