Scandal adds to problems of flood-weary Port Deposit Town clerk convicted, mayor quits, treasury status is unknown

March 11, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

PORT DEPOSIT -- Ill fortune has found this quaint river-front town in natural and human forms.

In January, nature's fury was unleashed with a blizzard and resulting flood that forced the evacuation of the town's 750 residents and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes.

Now, with spring around the corner, residents are dealing with scandal. The town clerk-treasurer has been convicted of misconduct, the mayor has resigned and the municipal treasury is in disarray.

Recent developments also have peeled back an ugly feud between the former political power structure and newer residents, whom some old-timers call "outsiders." And political upstarts are plotting a special election that could replace the fTC new mayor, appointed Tuesday, and six council members.

"We were warning them for five years the treasury was in trouble," said Nick Cusmano, a member of the town's volunteer finance committee. "We became so furious at the mayor and council, it was a 'good ol' gal' network. We called in the hounds, because all they did was thumb their noses at us."

Port Deposit is a mile-long string of turn-of-the-century houses and buildings, sandwiched between the Susquehanna River and a steep wall of granite.

Since a Navy base and a large company left Port Deposit in the 1970s and 1980s, the town's tax base has deteriorated. The town has no doctor, pharmacy, bank or large grocery store, forcing residents to conduct that business in Rising Sun or Havre de Grace.

Still, the town has bright spots. Recently, $5 million in federal and state grants was directed to refurbish Main Street, and nearly $1 million eventually will be spent on housing rehabilitation.

The most vibrant spot in town is Tome's Landing, site of about 70 condominiums and a res- taurant hard by the river. In two to three years, a Canadian developer hopes to build 177 condos and a large marina there.

But that is then, and this is now, says a hopeful Mr. Cusmano.

"We are getting our brains beat out with negative publicity," he said. "We are making changes that are positive. It can be a great little town."

Port Deposit's public troubles started in October, when investigators from the State Special Prosecutor's Office began delving into the tales of small-town political intrigue and financial records spilling from old shoe boxes at town hall. They were joined by auditors from the state Office of Legislative Audits.

Their findings resulted in Nancy L. Peters, town clerk-treasurer, pleading guilty to misconduct in office for not paying her property taxes and utility fees, and those of two other town residents -- including then-Mayor Erma M. Keetley, a Port Deposit official for nearly three decades.

Mrs. Keetley, 74, resigned her post last week as part of a deal with prosecutors, sources said, and has not been charged with any crime.

"People are very angry that Keetley wasn't indicted," said Diane Stackwick, another member of the want justice, we want them branded, accountable. Right now, Keetley can come back and say, 'It wasn't me,' and she would be off the hook. She could run for mayor again."

At a town meeting March 19, the issue of amending the town charter will be voted on by the six-member council and the new mayor, Kerry Abrams. One amendment would allow for the election of a new slate of officials; the other would allow nonresident property owners to vote, according to town attorney Stephen Baker.

Meanwhile, Sharon Weygand, the town's new clerk-treasurer, is busy creating an accounting process -- accounting of municipal expenditures and income has not been maintained for 18 months -- and a water billing system.

"Until the audit is completed for fiscal year 1995 and until we do a cash flow analysis, we can't say whether the town is bankrupt, if there is a deficit," said Mrs. Weygand. "We were crippled with the flood and now the misconduct charges, but with the new mayor, we're on a positive path. We've turned a painful corner."

While the townspeople might rebound from the political scandal, fence-mending between factions could prove more difficult.

"I feel good about the direction the town is headed, because it's time for new leadership," said Christopher McAfee, superintendent of water and waste water.

"There are two distinct groups in town, and one of them wanted to bring the mayor down. There were never any rules or regulations to guide us as supervisors, as town employees. There isn't even a personnel policy."

Michael Smigiel, an Elkton lawyer representing Mrs. Stackwick -- who is challenging the 1995 election when she failed to unseat Mrs. Keetley -- said residents of Port Deposit must come together.

"The dynamic that opened up this sore was the power struggle between people who lived in Port their whole lives and others who moved in, others viewed as outsiders," he said.

Betty Burnett, who calls herself an old-timer and who grew up with Mrs. Keetley, said "a lot of people are devastated over what happened because you expect people to be honest. A lot of the older folks don't like change.

"But, I think we should have change. You can't stay in one spot forever."

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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