Frederick's council divided over mayor, may go to court

Aldermen's wish to sue is latest salvo in long fight

February 01, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- The picture outside Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty's office shows six happy faces, the mayor and five aldermen on the day they were sworn in more than three years ago.

But quickly, bickering began on all sorts of issues: a building moratorium; water shortages; a statue of the Ten Commandments. Usually the three Republican men have been on one side, the three Democratic women -- including the mayor -- on the other.

Yesterday, Alderman David G. Lenhart took the acrimony to a new level as he and the other Republicans threatened to take Dougherty to court in an attempt to allow more people to run against her this fall.

Specifically, Lenhart wants to reduce the city residency requirement for mayoral candidates from three years to one -- a change that could allow a former Frederick mayor who has moved back into the city, Ron Young, to run in the September primary.

Lenhart got the Board of Aldermen to approve a city charter amendment changing the residency requirement, but Mayor Dougherty vetoed the measure.

"This is not political," Lenhart said yesterday at City Hall as he discussed the possible lawsuit. "This is a technical question that has to be answered. Period. End of story. That's all there is to it."

But to those who oppose this latest salvo, it is nothing but politics. Some say it is designed to allow Young -- the city's Democratic mayor from 1974 to 1990 -- to run against Dougherty. Young has told the local newspaper that he is "seriously considering" running.

Lenhart says his impetus was a request from a local businessman who is new to the growing city and asked him to propose the change.

After public hearings, the amendment was approved as the three GOP aldermen voted to change the charter, while the two Democrats voted no. Dougherty then vetoed the measure, saying the hearings had made clear that public opinion was 2-to-1 against it.

Lenhart asked state Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick County Republican, to ask the Maryland attorney general's office whether Dougherty had the authority to veto a charter amendment. Lenhart argued that the veto undermined the separation of legislative and executive powers.

In a letter Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe said the mayor "did not have the authority to veto a proposed charter amendment approved by the Board of Aldermen."

GOP aldermen unite

When Dougherty refused Friday to reconsider her veto, Lenhart gathered support from Aldermen Bill Hall and Joseph Baldi. The three said yesterday they will support a suit -- even if they have to use their own money. Lenhart said the board will have a special meeting this week to consider filing suit.

It appears he has the three votes needed to move forward, though there is still some debate over whether city money would be used to sue the city.

"I think this is a ridiculous political maneuver, and I'm pretty disgusted by it," Alderman Donna K. Ramsburg said yesterday. "The mayor is the president of this Board of Aldermen and that's the way it is." Alderman Marcia A. Hall agreed.

Dougherty, a local restaurant owner, has been a lightning rod for criticism since defeating Republican Mayor Jim Grimes in 2001. Opponents describe her as autocratic.

Yesterday, she wondered aloud how all three aldermen came to the same conclusion about a suit without breaking state open-meetings laws. The three insist they never met to discuss the action.

"This is what happened in the old days," Dougherty said. "Read the phrase: `The good old boys.' "

She says her objection has nothing to do with expanding the field of challengers for her job. "I will welcome any comers," she said, adding that she has not announced her candidacy.

Meanwhile, Lenhart says he wants to foster competition and allow any and all who move to the city an equal chance to lead it.

Veto power varies

Only a handful of the 157 cities and towns in Maryland give their mayors veto power, said Scott A. Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League. In most cases, the mayor is a member of the city or town council and acts more as the chairman of the body than the executive, he said.

But in places such as Annapolis, Baltimore and Frederick, where the mayor has a strong executive role, veto power is common, particularly with budget items. Lenhart said that whatever a judge would decide in Frederick's case would apply all over the state.

Dougherty has issued just one other veto in her three-plus years of office, though neither she nor her staff could recall the circumstances yesterday.

As much as they tried yesterday to say the dispute is not personal, the baggage from the past several years appeared to creep into the aldermen's comments.

"She's just saying, `We're right and you're wrong.' That's what she always says," Baldi said. "It's her way or the highway."

"This mayor ... does what she wants to do," Bill Hall said. "That's been the gist from Day 1."

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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