Scolded leaders brace for elections

Campaign Notebook

October 30, 2005|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Faced with a "stacked house" of angry constituents at their final meeting before Election Day, members of the Aberdeen City Council refrained from re-election posturing and instead licked their wounds from a barrage of attacks that have set the stage for the city's most contentious election to date.

Critics of the mayor and much of the council have been able to portray contention over police salaries and the firing of two city employees as indicative of broader leadership problems - a view that was hammered home again at Monday's council meeting.

Faced with the looming arrival of thousands of military and high-tech jobs via a national base consolidation - an influx that will test the management skills of the town of 14,000 - the city has an unprecedented field of 11 candidates vying to lead the town, including four seeking to become mayor.

In perhaps their last public chance to clarify their positions before the Nov. 8 election, however, council members were mum, while residents voiced their concerns. Afterward, council members said that their stances were clear and that they hoped common sense would prevail.

Or as one city official said, "Everybody's petrified right now."

The most heated moments Monday night were supplied by the Fraternal Order of Police, who showed up in strong numbers to dispute the city's position on a ballot referendum that would give the city's officers the right to collective bargaining that includes binding arbitration.

Union leaders Richard Denu and Joseph K. Bray were incensed at language the city was using on a pamphlet to describe the issue to voters. The pamphlet said binding arbitration could result in a 2.5 cent to 3 cent increase in property taxes or a reduction in services. City officials say budget consultants have advised the city that it cannot absorb pay raises without one of those outcomes.

But Bray and Denu seemed to differ on that issue. Denu, union vice president, railed against the notion that there wasn't money to pay for salary and benefit improvements, a position shared by the union's preferred mayoral candidate, S. Fred Simmons.

"That's not fair, and I'm ashamed for you," Denu scolded the mayor.

Bray, the union president, acknowledged the city's poor financial state - the result of "mismanagement," he said - and added that police union members would not seek to impose a tax increase on the city's residents for their own gain. Binding arbitration would be an "insurance policy," he said.

"Mismanagement" of the budget has also been a recurring theme, one Wilson and three council members say they thought they had resolved when they forced the resignation of the former city manager amid questions surrounding his role.

The city had to borrow $1 million to replenish its capital fund, a move that is not uncommon among governments but one that the city's administrators agree was a result of poor decision-making. Finance director Frank Bitzelberger, in summarizing an independent audit of the city's finances, explained how short-term borrowing made under former city manager Peter Dacey's watch "depleted the capital fund."

"That's no efficient way to operate," Bitzelberger said.

But some residents have roundly rejected the notion that Dacey, a popular resident and deacon at a local church, needed to be replaced or should be held solely responsible, and they have pinned much of the blame on the beleaguered mayor.

Dacey maintains that the mayor and the council were aware of his activities or had access to information detailing the city's financial management.

Some said later that the atmosphere of the meeting - what they described as a collection of residents with grievances as well as their friends or relatives - was a no-win situation and not indicative of overall voter sentiment.

"That's a stacked house," said Councilman Michael Hiob.

Aside from door-to-door campaigning, candidates will have few other opportunities to spread their messages. The police union is planning a "meet the candidates" night Tuesday at the Aberdeen Senior Center, though a handful of candidates have said they would not participate.

Grant's return

After filing paperwork to run for mayor, resident Janice Grant seemed to vanish. And as campaign signs sprouted up around town, Grant's name was nowhere to be found.

But the 73-year-old educator and former county head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People resurfaced this week: She had been in Mississippi aiding victims of Hurricane Katrina for two weeks.

"It's a real American tragedy," Grant said. "We wanted to do our part and do what God intended us to."

Grant and two friends piled soap, baby clothes and other supplies collected by a local church into their cars and drove down to the Gulf Coast to assist in relief efforts. In the 1960s, Grant worked with the national NAACP's Freedom Democratic Party, organizing marches and establishing and overseeing Freedom Schools in Mississippi and other Southern states.

Civil rights work has taken Grant all over the world, from her birthplace in Aberdeen, where her mother and cousin helped establish the county's NAACP chapter, to the Gulf Coast, Tennessee and Africa, where she lived for several years.

Nothing, however, prepared her for what she saw in Mississippi, she said.

Grant has finally started campaigning, posting signs and talking with members of the community. As mayor, Grant says, she would work to make citizens feel more comfortable approaching city leaders and address the city's "excessive borrowing of tremendous sums of money."

"Don't buy a car if you can't make the payments," she said.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, Grant says she plans on making another relief trip next month.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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