Recall election sought in Salisbury

Citizens' petition drive tries a Md. first: to oust mayor and City Council

January 20, 2003|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY - A growing number of residents and civic leaders in this Eastern Shore town of 25,000 are trying to do what no one in Maryland has ever done - recall their mayor and City Council.

Three months after launching a petition drive, organizers say their pursuit of 30 percent of Salisbury's registered voters - the number needed to force a recall vote - is nearing an end. They predict they'll have enough signatures in the next month or so to trigger a special election. Should the drive begin to falter, they say, the bare-knuckles nature of Salisbury politics will provide the impetus to take them over the top.

Critics say bickering among the five council members and two-term Mayor Barrie Parsons Tilghman has made public access cable broadcasts of council meetings a new form of entertainment in town. Viewers "watch it like a NASCAR race, waiting for the next crash," as one business leader put it.

Brenda Cox, the 49-year-old gas station owner who has led the recall effort, says she simply was fed up with continuing squabbles over everything from regulations on rental housing to who pays the city's bills to whether the council or the mayor should have hiring and firing authority over city department heads.

"I'm just a gas station owner, but I decided I couldn't stand any more," says Cox, whose office is crammed with spiral notebooks filled with signed petitions.

Cox, who lives outside the city in a suburban development and can't vote in a recall election if one takes place, says it was the council's closed-door investigation of police Chief Allan Webster because of unspecified, anonymous tips that got her attention last summer.

Then there was a fight over legal fees racked up during the investigation. For a while, council President Lavonzella Siggers refused to sign checks for city bills until the attorney fees were settled.

Another action that sparked protest against the council was a hotly debated bill that cuts from four to two the number of roommates who can share a rented home. The change angered landlords and other business people, along with students at Salisbury University, who occupy many single-family homes that have been converted to apartments in the city's Camden area.

More fuel came from a package of 20 proposed changes to the city charter - including provisions that would limit the amount of time citizens have to complete a recall challenge.

"This has just gotten to be an embarrassment, a time in Salisbury's history that we won't be proud of," says Ronald Condon, a businessman who teaches advertising part time at Salisbury University. "I don't have any ax to grind, but I made up my mind to get up off the couch and get involved with the petition drive."

Councilman Rachel S. Polk, who sponsored the proposed charter changes, says the amount of time for recall petitions should be limited. Under the current language, she says, a recall drive could last for an entire four-year term.

The recall effort, Polk insists, is backed primarily by business people "who come into town every morning and leave for home at night. If they could get the old guard back in office, there would be some happy campers in the business community."

At least tacit support from the business community, which has stepped lightly around the dispute, became more apparent last week. The Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Salisbury Committee and VOICE, a powerful anti-tax group that successfully petitioned two county tax measures two years ago, criticized the proposed charter changes.

Leaders of the three groups say they haven't endorsed the recall effort, but say their patience with the continued conflict among Tilghman and the council has worn thin.

"It's been a fiasco for months and months," says Richard Holloway, who heads the chamber. "We're not promoting a recall - we have to be careful not to get too political. But we have a dysfunctional government."

Critics say chronic bickering is hurting economic development and other important projects in the city that bills itself as the "Crossroads of Delmarva." A growing consensus, they say, is that a clean sweep might help restore Salisbury's image.

"The business community is crying out for an end to the way government is being conducted," says Art Cooley, past president of the Greater Salisbury Committee. "It's hurting our ability to recruit business, the hospital's ability to recruit doctors, the university's ability to attract top professors. We need to get this level of conflict behind us."

Tilghman, who built a reputation as a tough-minded neighborhood activist before being elected to her first term in 1998, says business groups that have always opposed her are behind the recall drive.

"A recall isn't meant to be a reprise of an election or to measure the popularity of an elected official," says Tilghman. And she cautions opponents, "Once you start the French Revolution, you might not be able to control the outcome."

If recall supporters gather enough signatures, a special election would be held in which voters would decide whether to remove or reaffirm each council member and the mayor. Any surviving council members would appoint replacements. It is unclear what would happen if the entire government is thrown out.

James P. Peck, research director for the Maryland Municipal League, says only 22 of the state's 156 municipalities have recall provisions in their charters. Three small-town mayors were removed from office over the past 20 years through recall votes, he says, but never an entire council.

"Nationally, Lord knows if this has ever been done," Peck says. "But it's certainly fair to say that here in Maryland, with the mayor and council, it would be unprecedented."

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