Somerset County Commission Chair Gerald Walker said when he got a call from the White House saying he and all the other county commissioners in the state would be invited to a July 13 meeting at the White House, he thought it might be a joke.
“You have to wonder if that’s the real deal when you just get a phone call like that out of the blue,” Walker said.
When the printed invitation arrived in the mail a few days later, he knew it was real.
The invitation said top administrators from every department and agency would be on hand at the meeting, but it does not say who specifically. It also does not say how the event will be formatted nor does it specify what's on the agenda.
Walker, a Republican, said he is looking to build direct relationships with the administration.
“Eliminate a lot of the middlemen," Walker said. "Have a contact to go, not straight to the top, but have a very close contact in the federal government would be outstanding."
Walker said he would like to talk about the president’s recently released plan for infrastructure development as well as funding for job creation and the fight against the opioid epidemic.
Cambria County Commission Chair Tom Chernisky, a Democrat, said he plans to bring up the same programs.
Chernisky said he doesn't think the fact that there will be commissioners from both parties at the event will cause any problems.
“The elections are over, we need to govern, we need to do our jobs, we need to work together and we need to fix things,” he said. “So there’s no tension on my end other than we’ve got to work together. When you’re elected, that’s what you have to do.”
County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Doug Hill said he has never seen an invitation like this extended directly to the commissioners. In the past, he said presidents have reached out through his organization to set up meetings with representatives from an office of intergovernmental affairs.
Hill has been told the Trump Administration has set similar meetings with leaders from other states later in the year.
“It’s always a good thing to have a direct relationship between the federal and local government because there are so many service we provide at the local level that are derived from federal mandates and are funded in part by federal monies,” Hill said.
The association will hold a dinner meeting the night before the White House meeting to talk about topics that might be discussed and to outline official stances that have been taken by the group.
“We are looking forward to opening the dialog and we hope that it is the beginning of regular communication and regular understanding of counties' role in the governmental system at the federal level,” Hill said.
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was invited, but said he's not sure if his schedule will allow him to attend. A spokesperson said if he does attend, he hopes to "talk about infrastructure projects that are important to this county/region."