GALENA -- If there's a hot topic in this rural Kent County crossroads near the Sassafras River, you can bet Horace and Josie Otwell will hear all about it.
Otwell's Market, a full-service, immaculate little grocery where Horace has worked for 41 years, is the kind of place where everybody knows your family and you know theirs. Longtime customers can run a tab that's tallied by pencil, not computer, and few seem reluctant to banter about the day's events or the latest gossip as Josie works the cash register.
Lately, the talk has been politics at its most basic. It's a week and a half until Election Day in Galena and folks aren't wondering who will be the next mayor, but whether they'll have one at all.
Two council members, who are paid $25 a month, are running unopposed for seats on the four-member panel, but the candidate filing deadline has come and gone with no one signed up for the mayor's slot.
Gazing across the busy intersection of routes 213 and 313 at the single-story bungalow that serves as Town Hall, Josie Otwell says not to worry. People are talking, but no one is fretting. Neighbors help neighbors and things have a way of working themselves out in Galena.
"We like our little town; we want to keep it rural," Otwell says. "Horace has lived here all his life, except for going in the Air Force, and I grew up just up the road in Sassafras. But neither of us could run for mayor now because we've just moved outside the town limits. I guess it'll have to be a write-in."
Mayor Harry J. Pisapia, a Crofton native who's held the top spot for 10 of the 20 years he's lived here, says he wants a rest from the $100-a-month job that seems to take more time each year.
According to the town's attorney and Kent County elections office, a write-in is the first option. Failing that, Pisapia would remain in office until the council could line up someone willing to be appointed mayor.
"This is the absolute grass roots of elective office," says Pisapia, whose son Joe is married to the the Otwells' daughter Christina. "Everybody not only knows who you are, but what time you go to the post office every day. If they have a complaint, they'll find you there. If a dog barks at night, they'll call you at home. I've really enjoyed it, but it's time for a change."
Scott Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, which represents the state's 157 incorporated towns, says the candidate shortage is relatively rare. Last fall, the league stepped in to offer advice in the Caroline County town of Marydel, which nearly lost its charter when three members of the town's five-member commission quit their volunteer posts.
`It does happen'
Across the state, May is the spring election cycle for small towns, Hancock says, and this year many are set for spirited contests. In LaPlata, a large number of candidates have forced the first-ever primary in the Charles County town. In Carroll County, 10 candidates are running for seats on the Taneytown council.
"I wouldn't say [a lack of candidates] is typical, but it does happen," Hancock says. "It's a decision people have to make -- whether their community is important enough to make a sacrifice."
In Galena, a few names have been kicked around but, like Pisapia, most say they just don't have the time. Increasingly for many on the Eastern Shore, the price of the slow pace and the casual familiarity of small-town life is a workday commute that rivals those endured by suburbanites on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay.
Pisapia runs his insurance business from a home office, but says many of his neighbors don't have that option.
Situated in northern Kent County, where the Shore's familiar flat plain and chicken houses give way to gentle hills and dairy farms, Galena is attracting workers willing to make the 1-hour, 15-minute run to Philadelphia (some splitting their time in two houses) or the 45-minute trip to Wilmington. Closer still are jobs in bustling Cecil County or elsewhere in Delaware.
In the past decade, the population increased by 86 people, a 25 percent increase that brought the 2000 census total to 428. Many of the newcomers bought houses in Dogwood Village, a new subdivision on the western edge of town where children leave their bicycles scattered around the school bus stop all day without fear of theft. Parents like the neighborhood middle school, which draws its 308 students from Galena and neighboring communities such as Betterton, Sassafras and Still Pond.
Others, like Paul Thien, an advertising designer from Newark, Del., have taken advantage of an increasing number of tourists the locals call "the Pennsylvania Navy" who clog the roads on summer weekends.
`A lack of interest'
Thien, who owns Firehouse Antiques, lives part time in an apartment above the store and keeps a hand in free-lance design work. He says he's talked with his partner about a write-in campaign, but like everyone else, he has little time for civic duty.