A lingering controversy surrounding the Turf Valley Hotel and Country Club has escalated another notch, with the club owner issuing a plea for community leaders and residents to bury a hatchet that has been raised since a 1988 racial incident.
Last month, Oakland Mills High School students said the concerns raised by the incident had not been resolved satisfactorily, and they canceled plans to conduct next spring's prom there.
The cancellation prompted the Ellicott City club's owner, Nicholas B.
Mangione, to draft a letter to 27 community leaders Oct. 17 that said, "Racism can cut both ways.
"It is reprehensible when a small minority of parents urges their children to harbor bitterness and to cultivate meanness of spirit," he said in the letter. "I deplore a school system that even tacitly allows such pettiness to fester and flourish."
In an interview Monday, Mangione accused the Howard County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of imposing a boycott and "not wanting the racial issue to die" at Turf Valley, even though, he said, he has upheld his agreement to provide racial-sensitivity training.
"There were problems, and I confronted them and solved them," Mangione said. "How much more do they want? You can't just keep labeling someone as a bad guy."
But the letter has met criticism from school officials and the Howard County NAACP, both of which say Mangione is mistaking public concern for organized boycotting.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Hickey had harsh words for Mangione, who he said has unfairly blamed the school system for repercussions of the incident, in which the club's hotel manager left racial slurs on the telephone answering machine of a black county resident.
"I'm not going to let him lay his problems on my doorstep," Hickey said.
"I can't help it if there are still some members of the community who still feel strongly about what happened. I'm not endorsing a boycott, but I can't deal with people's feelings."
Hickey said the decision to change the prom location was made by junior and senior class leaders at Oakland Mills. The students presented a petition stating that the racial questions surrounding Turf Valley "had not been resolved to their satisfaction."
The charges of racism erupted in 1988 when Fred Grimmel, the hotel's general manager and Mangione's nephew, left racial slurs on a telephone answering machine.
Grimmel was returning the phone call of NAACP member Sherman Howell, who had called to ask about the club's hiring practices. Grimmel made the comments after believing the taped message had been completed. He later admitted making the comments and resigned.
Mangione stressed in the letter that Turf Valley has made a good-faith effort to deal with the racial concerns of the NAACP and the county Human Rights Commission. Most community members feel "that these issues were finally put to rest," Mangione said.
In a written statement last week, however, the Howard County NAACP said that Turf Valley has not adequately addressed three recommendations made by community members after the 1988 incident, and agreed to by Turf Valley: that Grimmel be replaced, that the club offer a sensitivity training program, and that the NAACP have access to records regarding Turf Valley's minority hiring practices.
Grimmel was later rehired, and no sensitivity training program has been provided for employees, the NAACP statement said. Also, association officials said they have not been allowed the chance to verify Turf Valley's employment figures.
"We feel there has not been any interest on the part of Turf Valley to consider the things that were suggested," said Jo Ann Branche, a member of the Howard County NAACP. "However, we are not calling for a boycott. But we feel the public should know that our negotiations have been somewhat less than amicable."
The county Human Rights Commission refused to comment on the matter.
Mangione contends that racial sensitivity training was provided and that the NAACP has always had the opportunity to examine employment figures but has not requested to do so. Grimmel was rehired after three months with the agreement of NAACP officials, he said.
"It is not, nor has it ever been, my desire to discriminate against anyone," said Mangione, who wrote in his letter that "society in general must teach and stand for tolerance, the gift of forgiveness . . . and walk into the future as brothers and sisters and not as racial adversaries."