Crisfield unfazed by mayor's arrest Not first or worst, say townsfolk citing other recent troubles

August 11, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- The city's mayor is charged with insurance fraud and theft. Its council has asked the city manager to resign. And few in this Eastern Shore city say they're surprised.

"What's so different about it?" asked Floyd Poole, 55, as he chatted about the latest political events yesterday in a downtown hardware store. "For whatever our politicians may have done, I'm sure they've been doing it for a long time, and it can't be as bad as what others are doing in Annapolis and Washington."

Maybe so, but even Crisfield's most vocal boosters admit it's been a tough week for the city of 2,500 that's best known for its seafood and its proximity to Smith Island.

On Wednesday, the three-member City Council voted to ask City Manager Harry T. Phoebus to resign, saying he had cost the city money by missing deadlines to apply for state grants.

The next day, state officials ordered Mayor Donald W. Gerald to close an unlicensed crab-picking operation on property he owns.

And on Friday, Gerald, 66, was arrested on fraud and perjury charges related to the 1993 theft of a delivery truck from a seafood business in which he was a partner. He recovered $84,000 in an insurance settlement for crab meat stolen from the truck, which police said was not inside the truck when it was stolen.

The first-term mayor remains under investigation in connection with a 1995 arson that destroyed a vacant house he owns, state fire officials say.

Neither Gerald nor Phoebus could be reached for comment.

For the small town in Somerset County struggling to rebound from a prolonged slump in Chesapeake Bay seafood production, the week's political misfortunes and the bad publicity that comes along with it are an unneeded blow.

"I am very embarrassed for the city of Crisfield," said City Council member Greg Sterling. "The city has endured enough hardships without having to go through this again.

"I'm not going to call for the mayor to resign, but if I were in his position, I would resign because the publicity is so embarrassing for the city," Sterling said.

Throughout the city's business district yesterday, many agreed with Sterling's sentiments. Some worried about what newspaper and television pictures of the mayor in handcuffs would mean to Crisfield's attempts at economic recovery.

Concern for health

Yet, most townsfolk said both Phoebus and Gerald are two of the friendliest men in Crisfield.

Some expressed concerned about the effect this will have on the mayor's health. Gerald had a heart attack soon after he was elected in June 1994 and has had financial problems in recent years, residents said.

The mayor has "only been charged, not convicted and I feel confident that he'll be proven innocent," said Michael Milbourne, 42, owner of Clarence Sterling's & Son marine supplies and hardware store. "There's a vicious gossip mill right now, but he's a very honest person who has always paid his bill with me.

"He's a loyal customer, and I'll continue to extend credit to him," he said.

"Even if he's convicted of those charges, it's not like we're talking about Marion Barry," the Washington, D.C., mayor who was imprisoned for drug offenses, Milbourne said.

Said 83-year-old Wells Somers, as he relaxed in Gordon's Confectionary: "They treated the mayor like he's John Dillinger, putting him in handcuffs and everything."

But Somers also said he wasn't surprised by the latest news -- it's part of Crisfield's history.

"I've seen much worse in this town since I came here in 1918," he said.

For example, in 1990 former Crisfield police Chief Norman C. Swift III pleaded guilty to nonfeasance in office -- a result of a plea agreement in which the state dropped charges of arson, bribery, theft and malfeasance. The most serious charge involved setting an October 1987 fire that destroyed almost two blocks of downtown Crisfield, causing $5 million worth of damage.

An owner of one of the businesses destroyed by the fire later won a lawsuit against the city's former mayor and three former council members because of a failed project to rebuild the downtown after the fire.

Gerald was elected in 1994 running on a "Clean House" campaign theme. His supporters are quick to emphasize that pTC none of the charges are related to his mayoral work.

But Gerald's next-door neighbors -- who know Gerald only through waves and hellos of greeting -- say that even if the mayor is convicted of these latest charges, they would understand, because Gerald allegedly was trying to obtain the insurance money to keep afloat a crab-picking business that provided jobs for Somerset residents.

"If I had a chance bring some prosperity to this town, but I had to do something illegal to get the capital, I think I would," said John Windsor, 40, as he helped his wife Robin make crab pots. "This town needs it so much. We need everything we can get."

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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