Michael Pipe left office on Jan. 14 after 11 years as a Centre County commissioner. The Democrat had been chair of the Board of Commissioners since 2016. Now he’s off to Harrisburg to serve as deputy chief of staff for public safety in new Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration.
We spoke with Pipe on one of his last days as commissioner about the lessons he’s learned in county government and the challenges facing Centre County. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk of the Town: Aside from managing a restaurant in downtown State College and running for Congress in 2010, being a county commissioner has been the bulk of your career. What are some things that 26-year-old Michael Pipe — when you were first elected — did not understand about county government?
Pipe: The most important thing I think I’ve learned about this job is to be gentle with myself and appreciate that you can’t do it all yourself. That can be a very tough thing, because during [the 2011] campaign, it was made very clear to me that I would be the youngest commissioner ever to take office [in Centre County]. So the stereotype of being wet behind the ears, of being inexperienced, played on me for quite some time. So I would have told myself earlier on to trust the team and the process.
Talk of the Town: In a lot of ways Centre County stands out in north-central Pennsylvania, if not statewide.The county population is slowly but steadily growing. Regional collaboration among local governments happens more frequently here. The county government values and does a pretty good job at being transparent. What do you think makes Centre County successful in those ways?
Pipe: It has always baffled me when an elected official doesn’t return a call for comment. I believe in taking ownership of mistakes. I have found throughout my career that it has given people more belief in the commissioners’ office, because they know when we make a mistake, we’re going to let them know. It’s OK to make mistakes and to be transparent about what went wrong and how we’ll do better in the future.
Centre County was one of the founding members of C-NET, the great programming channel that allows the residents to see how their local governments work. And that is rare. None of the other counties in central Pennsylvania had that. When I got elected, I thought that was just commonplace.
Talk of the Town: In short and long terms, what are the challenges that you think Centre County is facing?
Pipe: It’s a good thing for the county to be growing and adding population. You know, we hear rumblings of a large development at the Benner Commerce Park, potentially creating up to 800 jobs. It’s fantastic to have economic development, but how do county services grow with that? That will be a short-term challenge, and renovating the Centre Crest building [to provide more county government office space] will be a part of the answer.
In the long term, it's going to be staffing human services positions. The burnout that people are experiencing is real. We need to be able to hire and retain people so that we don’t see constant turnover.
Talk of the Town: What are some parting thoughts you have for the residents of Centre County?
Pipe: I think that I never appreciated how accessible local government can be. I encourage people to reach out, participate on authority boards and commissions, and volunteer if they can. Get engaged and run for office, if you're interested in that. For the majority of the positions that will be on the ballot in just a few short months, you need 10 signatures for a petition. That’s it. Be as civically engaged as possible, because I guarantee you there's something for everybody in county government.
—Min Xian, local accountability reporter