Aberdeen Politics: Childish As Usual


April 25, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The battle between the mayor and city council of Aberdeen continues next month, with tests in the court and at the polls.

The city council election May 4 poses a clear choice for partisans in the fray. The mano a mano legal combat is scheduled two weeks later. Councilman DeWayne Curry is charged with assault by Mayor Ruth Elliott. She claims he shot a clenched fist near her face during a closed council session. Mr. Curry denies it; others add that Mrs. Elliott tossed candy wrappers at him.

It's the kind of childish spat that can give even government a bad name. Except in Aberdeen, where it's simply the same old thing.

The assault case will likely be dismissed, with each side drawing support for its positions. Mrs. Elliott will point to the cliquish "old boys" on the council once more ganging up against her and the truth.

The council members, who have sworn that Mr. Curry did not assault the mayor, will insist that Heronner is again picking a fight for no good reason, out of frustration.

One of the four council members has assiduously tried to avoid the ongoing fight: Macon L. Tucker Jr., a high school teacher running for a second two-year term.

Elliott forces tried to broker a deal to get Mr. Tucker to run on a "ticket" with the mayor's favorite lawyer, Barbara O. Kreamer. He turned it down, then complained that Kreamer political flyers unfairly linked him with her campaign.

Ronald Kupferman, with 14 years on the council, is the third candidate in the race for two seats. He calls Heronner a trouble-making dictator and a self-styled outsider who can't respect the charter.

Mrs. Kreamer, a former two-term state delegate and ex-county councilwoman, is a long-time ally of Mrs. Elliott who fully backs the mayor's stands. She was Mrs. Elliott's campaign manager and was Heronner's choice for city attorney last year. In what was the first skirmish between the new mayor and council, the council rejected the appointment of Mrs. Kreamer, who had become a lawyer less than a year before, and insisted on retaining town attorney Gregory Rapisarda.

Mrs. Kreamer has always been a successful candidate in Harford County, but she's never run so closely tied to another's apron strings. It's a legitimate campaign issue in Aberdeen, but running as a surrogate candidate can often backfire.

To boost Mrs. Kreamer's chances, the Elliott camp decided on the "single shooting" ballot approach: Put up only one candidate instead of letting supporters split their ballots.

Potential candidates favoring Mrs. Elliott were persuaded to stand aside and let the political veteran carry the banner. Sue Stuchinski said she had been pressured into withdrawing her petition after a meeting with the two women shortly before filing deadline. (She is now suing to get back on the ballot.)

Mrs. Elliott, who served 10 years on the council, portrays herself as the female victim of four councilmen, and there's every indication the gender card will a be played in this election, too. Mrs. Kreamer has been closely tied to women's issues and organizations in her political career. But voters will note former councilwoman Evelyn Becker is among Heronner's harshest *T critics.

It's difficult to predict the outcome, with a typical voter turnout below 25 percent. If Mr. Kupferman and Mrs. Kreamer polarize and mobilize their constituencies, then Mr. Tucker might well come in last and out. Or, the neutral Mr. Tucker could benefit from voter disgust with the political brawling and come out on top, no matter who is second.

As for the mayor, she recently backed down from a 30-day suspension of Police Chief Jack Jolley, after giving him two weeks' paid vacation. She finally understood that leave with pay was no punishment and that she couldn't fire him in any case, given council opposition.

Charges of mishandling a police petty cash fund have been turned over to the state special prosecutor, who handles such inquiries. The Harford sheriff's office continues to look into charges of police brutality, referred by the police chief. The FBI is also investigating.

It was Mrs. Elliott's secret probe of police rumors that precipitated the latest showdown over authority. For months she complained that the council prevented her from doing her legal job. She then admitted she didn't know the proper legal procedure for such an investigation. She didn't know about the state special prosecutor. She didn't respect the city manager's responsibility for managing departments. She blamed City Hall advisers, whom she didn't trust anyhow, then hired Mrs. Kreamer as personal counsel.

She fell back on the tired excuse, "I just want to serve the people and provide efficient, honest government." There is a growing question whether Mrs. Elliott understand the office and has the temperament for it: The outsider, gadfly role plays well on the council, but not as the mayor.

Not that council members haven't tried to provoke her, especially on personnel matters. From her first day in office, however, Mrs. Elliott has acted like the Queen of Hearts, proclaiming "off with their heads" at every turn. The council and mayor have often agreed on policy decisions, but arm-wrestling over political power has become the issue in Aberdeen government. A charter review group is trying to resolve the conflicting interpretations.

The May 4 election could serve as an early referendum on the conflict. But the result is unlikely to change the balance of power in Aberdeen. Neither is Mr. Curry's court trial.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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