ACLU lawsuit ignites the ire of tiny Shore town Political clout of blacks is in dispute

March 01, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

PRINCESS ANNE -- When the American Civil Liberties Union sued this Somerset County town alleging voter discrimination, the lawyers thought they'd get at least a little public support.

But though half of Princess Anne's 1,666 residents are black, no blacks spoke at a town meeting on the lawsuit that is intended to boost their political clout.

Several white businessmen vowed they would rather abolish town government than give in to the ACLU. Even John Wilson, a black activist who grew up here and now is the District of Columbia's City Council president, has denounced the suit as "unfair."

Last week, all five of Princess Anne's elected officials -- including the black town commission president -- voted to resist the ACLU in court, taking on a legal battle that is likely to cost the cash-strapped town tens of thousands of dollars.

"I wasn't expecting this," said Elliott Andalman, a Takoma Park attorney working with the ACLU.

But to local NAACP President Kirkland J. Hall, the reaction was just another sign that in this impoverished county, blacks face more immediate concerns than filling the ballot box.

"I guess most of us are struggling to survive," he said. "Issues like this are just not important at this time. It's hard to explain."

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 16 in federal court in Baltimore, charges that the Princess Anne charter violates Maryland law and the U.S. Voting Rights Act by letting property owners vote in municipal elections, even if they don't live in town.

Under the charter, individuals may vote if they have lived in Maryland for a year and in Princess Anne specifically for 30 days. But it also extends voting privileges to anyone who owns $1,000 worth of property in town, regardless of residence.

The suit alleges that the practice, which is followed in several other Eastern Shore towns, gives whites -- who own most of the property -- an unfair advantage over black residents in deciding town elections.

Blacks make up about 51 percent of Princess Anne's population and about 48 percent of the 1,250 residents of voting age.

The town has 900 registered voters, of whom 103 are nonresidential property owners. Eighty of the 103 outside property owners are white, the ACLU says.

Craig Mathies, who is the plaintiff named in the ACLU suit and executive vice president of the local NAACP, said he believes blacks must turn to the courts to make local governments more accessible.

"Somerset County has a long history of minorities not being elected to public office," he said. "This is one way of trying to get some voice in the town of Princess Anne."

Of the five members on the Princess Anne commission, only panel president Garland Hayward is black.

The legal matter could have been resolved easily, said ACLU attorney Deborah A. Jeon, if Princess Anne simply amended its charter to exclude nonresidential property owners from the voting list.

She said other towns with similar voting privileges also were told they violated state and federal laws, but they have expressed a willingness to change their charters. Princess Anne, she said, was sued in part because the town never responded to the ACLU's inquiries.

What ACLU lawyers did not anticipate was the threat from the town business community -- property owners who vote in local elections but live outside town -- to file their own suit against Princess Anne if the commissioners rewrote the charter.

Tony Bruce, a lawyer and property owner who lives outside Princess Anne, drew applause at the town meeting when he warned the commissioners they could face financial and political repercussions if they buckled to ACLU demands.

"It comes down to 'taxation without representation justifies the fall of government,' " he said. Mr. Bruce said property owners might put their town taxes in escrow and challenge a charter change in court.

Some property owners were so outraged at the ACLU suit that they proposed repealing the town charter, an act that would have disbanded the local government.

About 35 people attended last week's meeting, most of them white. Just two people advised the commissioners to change the town charter as the ACLU has demanded.

"Why spend money on a legal battle if it looks like we can't win?" asked Robert W. Nittel, a contractor who lives in town.

After the meeting, the commissioners held a private session, then came out to announce they had voted unanimously to fight the ACLU in court. Mr. Hayward, the president, said the commissioners felt the lawsuit was instigated by outsiders and that it was better to fight them than members of their own community.

"You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Mr. Hayward said with a shrug.

D.C. Council President Wilson, who recently bought a house here for weekend visits, has been an unexpected critic of the lawsuit.

"I don't like the suit at all," said Mr. Wilson, whom local authorities soaked with fire hoses during 1960s civil rights demonstrations in Princess Anne.

Mr. Wilson said he felt he should be excluded from voting in town elections because he is a registered voter in Washington, his primary residence. But he argued that other property owners who do not live and vote in another municipality should be able to cast a ballot.

"My concern is that business owners who live nearby should have a say in town government," he said.

NAACP President Hall said he was disappointed that many Princess Anne residents appear to be confused by the suit.

"They fail to understand that we're talking one-man, one-vote here," he said.

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