Michael Pipe Taking Measured Approach to County Commissioner Office
Michael Pipe still has dreams about Five Guys. Call them nightmares, even.
Workers keep canceling on him, leaving Pipe and just one other employee manning a store with customers lined to the door.
Nostalgia has even crept into reality for Pipe, the former burger bin manager-turned-Centre County commissioner. He recently walked into Five Guys to grab a bite to eat with his wife, Ashley, and actually had to walk out of the store before getting his order.
“I walked in the door and wanted to start giving directions to people that were working there,” Pipe said. “Staff changes over so much that I didn’t recognize anybody.”
The visit was also a reminder of how far Pipe, 26, has come since he graduated from Penn State in 2009 and withstood an unsuccessful run at Congress in 2010. The newly elected minority county commissioner joins Republicans Steve Dershem and Chris Exarchos, who more than double his age and have decades of combined experience in county government.
It’s a dynamic Pipe said he isn’t concerned about as the board continues discussing its chief capital-improvement project, an upgrade of the 911 communications system. Estimated costs for the project run as high as $26 million, and Pipe expects the project to be completed in 18 to 20 months, or fall 2013.
“The one thing I told Chris and Steve is I wanna be a part of the discussion; I just don’t wanna be off in the wing not participating,” Pipe said.
“If they wanted to do whatever they wanted to do, they could do that. All you need is two votes, but I think there are differences that Steve and Chris have that a lot of folks haven’t spent enough time looking into how they’ve worked together.”
Pipe said he has yet to vote against the two Republican commissioners, who, along with Pipe oversee 39 county departments, including Children Youth Services, the Coroner’s Office, Elections, the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office, among others.
Pipe was extensively involved in government while at Penn State and lost to U.S. Rep. Glenn "G.T." Thompson, R-Howard, for a seat in the House of Representatives. In addition to the 911 system, Pipe’s main objective is to make county government as transparent as possible, he said. One of the ways he plans to do this is by upgrading the county website.
“I’m focusing on ways that I can gain people’s trust, do my research, put in the legwork but with the same understanding that I am a commissioner,” Pipe said. “That’s a delicate balance, making sure I’m not stepping on anybody’s toes but saying: ‘Hey, look: 10,500 folks voted for me to be the commissioner, to be their representative, and there’s certain things I’m gonna advocate for.'”
Pipe equated county government to more like the TV show “The Office” rather than “The West Wing” — more mundane work like signing off on contracts and meetings than ribbon-cutting ceremonies.
The grandson of a man who spent his life in the burger business to put his children through college, Pipe said Dershem and Exarchos sometimes kid him and refer to him as "young man."
But Pipe is confident he belongs. The Ferguson Township resident has no plans to leave the area or use this job as a stepping stone in the political world. He’s smart enough to know he can’t barnstorm into the county office and demand change. Instead, he’s taking the opposite approach of spending much of his first year in office listening and forming relationships with his constituents.
His colleagues have taken notice.
“They recognize I do have my fresh perspective,” Pipe said, citing his campaign slogan. “They both said the fact that [I’m] not embroiled in any of these conflicts that we’re dealing with now, that [I’m] an outsider, is a huge benefit because you literally have a fresh start.”