Catch The Fights At Aberdeen City Hall

COMMENT

March 07, 1993|By MIKE BURNS | MIKE BURNS,Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

A witch hunt was what Aberdeen Councilman Charles Boutin called it. We presume he meant that the supposed target of the hunt was a witch, not the official conducting the hunt. But we can't be sure, given the open revolution at Aberdeen City Hall.

In an episode evocative of Al Haig's megalomaniacal White House declaration that "I'm in charge here," Mayor Ruth Elliott escalated her battle with the City Council last week by suspending the police chief against council objections, accusing him of fixing parking tickets. Chief Jack Jolley reportedly suggested that it was Mrs. Elliott who sought to have tickets adjusted.

"She's setting up everything the way she wants it and she's dictating," complained Ronald Kupferman, the council president.

"I want an efficiently run operation," Mrs. Elliott demanded, admitting that she has charged Councilman DeWayne Curry with assault as a result of a stormy closed council meeting Monday on the police department.

The latest test of representative democracy in Aberdeen began three weeks ago when the mayor, acting on an anonymous letter, secretly interviewed police officers about unspecified "management problems" of Chief Jolley.

The accusations against Chief Jolley reportedly centered on declining morale among police officers and sloppy accounting for funds in a discretionary cash account.

The police chief speculated that morale problems might stem from an ongoing investigation of alleged brutality by officers against a jailed prisoner.

Meanwhile, council members are in a quandary about how to handle the breakdown of checks and balances in the new mayor-council system of government, adopted barely a year ago.

Under the new city charter, the mayor can appoint or fire $H municipal employees, but only with the consent of the council. Mrs. Elliott contends she only suspended the chief, and does not need council approval.

"You have someone who is mayor who wants to rule by decree," Mr. Boutin said. "She wants full power," Mr. Curry added.

"This whole situation was vintage Ruth Elliott management style," Mr. Kupferman fumed. Ever since last May's election, the political tug of war has raged between council and mayor.

Mrs. Elliott has displayed in her new office the same kind of independence she exercised during 10 years on the town Board of Commissioners as the odd woman out, typically outvoted and ignored.

The four council members -- Mr. Kupferman and Macon Tucker served with her under the commissioner system -- haven't been exactly charmed by her superior attitude and belief that she was given a broad public mandate despite a close victory over the long-time unofficial mayor, George Englesson.

In the campaign, she stressed her dissent against insider-clique politics and promised an open door policy for residents with problems.

Her first move toward open government was to slap a gag order on municipal department heads, saying that only the mayor would speak for the city. "I'm tired of all this negative [stuff] in the papers," she explained. But council members strongly objected and her edict was withdrawn.

She had also declared during the mayoral campaign that she planned no changes in municipal staff.

But Mrs. Elliott quickly moved to replace the town attorney with ++ her election campaign manager, Barbara Kreamer, a politician with limited legal experience. The council rejected that nomination.

After four months of political jawboning and elbowing over the mayor's authority to appoint city staff, Mrs. Elliott finally asked for authority to employ legal counsel without council approval. The city council outfoxed her on that one, voting to give her the authority but only if she used the old town attorney, Gregory Rapisarda.

Mr. Rapisarda was appointed in September as city attorney by mayor and council. A week later, the mayor was in the hospital with an attack of angina attributed to stress.

There were hopes the contention might subside, but the turmoil continued beneath the surface.

In January, council members decided to appoint a committee to review workings of the new city charter. It sounded like a good idea, but the real impetus behind the committee was council discontent over the mayor's powers, as personally exercised by Ruth Elliott. Eliminating the committee rule of commissioners didn't mean eliminating the council, they noted.

We don't mind political independence, and certainly differing opinions are part of the political process that produces acceptable public policy. Elected officials don't have to like each other either.

But the continuing shootout between mayor and council in Aberdeen threatens to distract officials from important city issues. More significantly, it undermines public confidence in the new system of government. Exasperated burghers may well decide to conduct their own witch hunt in the near future.

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