Frederick tumult comes down to voters

City's mayoral battle to be settled Tuesday

November 02, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- A crossroads of the Civil War, Frederick is no stranger to turbulence. But when it comes to modern-day tumult, it's hard to top what the city has faced in the past few years: an enduring sex scandal, explosive growth amid an economic boom and a possible water shortage.

On Tuesday, the city will find out what the voters make of it all.

In seeking a third four-year term in the general election, Republican Mayor James S. Grimes, 61, is gambling that residents are satisfied with his pro-growth strategy that has continued Frederick's transformation from a bedroom community into one of Maryland's fastest-growing cities.

The mayor, a lifetime Frederick County resident, has helped lure more than a dozen residential developments and new businesses that now share the city with old brick homes and a 139-year-old town hall.

"This is the best financial condition the city has ever experienced," Grimes says.

But the downside of growth has included traffic congestion, crowded schools, unaccustomed scandals and a pressing need for new water sources if the city is to continue to grow.

The mayor's election opponent, Democrat Jennifer Dougherty, 40, isn't opposed to growth but says the city's approach has been reckless.

Dougherty, who moved to Frederick from the District of Columbia in 1987, says Grimes hasn't paid enough attention to looming water shortages. She also contends that he has steered businesses into newly developed areas on the fringes of town while disregarding older sections such as the "Golden Mile" of downtown shops.

She says the slighted areas include Carroll Creek, a historic area where she owns Jennifer's, an Irish restaurant that has become her unofficial campaign headquarters. A few years ago, she attracted local headlines by banning the use of cell phones at the restaurant because the devices annoyed her regular patrons.

Dougherty has also accused Grimes of poorly handling a scandal over a "black book" seized by police during a 1999 raid on an alleged prostitution ring in the Frederick area.

The book is a printout of customer names from the owner of an escort service, who paid a $100 fine last year for running a "place of assignation."

The local news media pushed for the release of the "black book" printout, but Grimes and other city and police officials have refused.

Dougherty says Grimes should have defused the issue long ago by releasing the names, saving the city embarrassment. She says the scandal has turned Frederick into "Dogpatch," a reference to the "L'il Abner" comic strip.

"Fighting this so vociferously only makes people want to know more. Being listed in a book isn't evidence of a crime, so why are we fighting it?" Dougherty says.

With the election looming, the matter is still being contested in the courts. Some of the mayor's critics accuse him of protecting associates who might be named in the book, but Grimes says disclosing names out of context could harm innocent people and subject the city to lawsuits.

"The `black book' issue is in the hands of the courts, and that's where it needs to be. We want the court to make the decision," Grimes says.

A week ago, Frederick County Circuit Court ordered the release of the escort service records held by the city but then quickly stayed the order while the city weighs an appeal.

However, the media may soon be allowed to inspect some of the documents -- those in the court's possession, not the city's.

The scandal could hurt Grimes at the polls. He engaged in a long-running and highly public feud with local newspaper publisher George E. Randall over whether the names should be released. In July, the two men appeared on the steps of town hall and shook hands to try to prove their squabble wasn't personal.

Grimes said at the time that he wouldn't run again, because he was fed up with the lurid headlines. But he soon changed his mind, saying his supporters had encouraged him to seek another term.

If party registration is any indication, the election could be close. Democrats hold a narrow edge -- 12,833 voters to 11,609 for the Republicans -- but Grimes has attracted enough crossover support to get by in the past.

It's a mayoral seat that statewide Democrats covet. While Frederick County is heavily Republican, Democrats believe a Democratic mayor in the state's second-largest city would give them much-needed visibility in Western Maryland.

Last weekend, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. joined local party leaders at a Dougherty rally at Hood College.

"We need some more good Democratic mayors in this state who aren't afraid of open and transparent government, and that's what I like about Jennifer," O'Malley said.

O'Malley's remarks were intended to reinforce one of Dougherty's campaign themes, namely that Grimes has been too cozy with some developers and others with a vested interest in the city's growth.

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