Recall divides Shore town

Months of feuding lead to ouster of 2 from Preston council

January 06, 2007|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

PRESTON -- The last time folks in the "Biggest Little Town in the U.S.A." waved banners and crammed Pam's diner on Main Street like this, they were celebrating their champion youth baseball team's trip to the Little League World Series.

Yesterday, as the lunch crowd chose among the "$4.99 grilled cheese and soup" and other daily specials, the chatter among patrons wasn't so heart-warming. The talk was of a recall election that removed two veteran members of the three-person Town Council and sparked bitter divisions in this town of 566.

For seven hours Thursday, 210 voters trooped through the stately old bank building that serves as Town Hall and the only polling place for this old Eastern Shore railroad town.

Paper ballots, marked by voters and watched over by a Caroline County elections official, were counted and totals were posted on the town bulletin less than an hour after the polling place closed at 7 p.m..

Commissioners Melissa Phillips and Rhoda Startt were turned out of office after months of feuding and political wrangling about alleged closed meetings that prompted their interim police chief to quit. There were 175 votes for removing Startt, while 178 voted to oust Phillips.

The turmoil reached a boil in October when critics began circulating petitions to force a recall election after the pair fired Preston's lone police officer for reasons that aren't clear. The town's attorney resigned in protest last month, leaving officials without legal advice and the town without police protection.

In his parting letter, attorney David R. Thompson pointed to his frustration with "dysfunctional relationships within town government," some of it caused by "active political conniving and undermining" by Commissioner Ellery Adams, who remains in office and was not subject of the recall.

Now, some are wondering what's next in a community where everyone knows everyone, where biting remarks aren't quickly forgiven and where some opponents aren't on speaking terms.

Adams said he hopes to move quickly to organize an election to replace the ousted Phillips and Startt. In the meantime, Adams said he can pay town bills and sign paychecks for the town's four employees, but little else.

"We've all been friends and neighbors in the past, but these ladies could have avoided all this if they'd just have listened to people," Adams said. "I think there will be bad feelings. I speak to both of them; they never speak to me."

Phillips has refused to comment on the recall, saying she has been advised against making any statements.

For her part, Startt insists that the petitions circulated by opponents who gathered more than 180 signatures aren't legal.

"This whole thing is illegal; the petitions were illegal from the beginning," said Startt. "They've accused me of holding closed meetings. It's a lie when they say the council was trying to get rid of the police force. There were two public hearings, and we were like birds on a wire, with people shooting at us."

Bill Mills, a member of the town's planning commission who was a key organizer of the recall, said the overwhelming victory should clear the way for new commissioners to attack chronic problems in the town. First on the list should be hiring new town police officers.

"We had an officer here, and traffic stops and arrests were way up," Mills said.

"The salary was only $35,000, and when a town our size gets a good one, we ought to hang onto the good ones. This was all about a power trip. They fired the only officer we had without having a replacement," Mills said.

While the sidewalk outside Pam Payne's restaurant was frequently used by sign-carrying recall supporters, Payne didn't vote in the election.

She lives in Dorchester County. But after 16 years dishing out lunch and dinner on a corner with the town's only traffic light (a yellow blinker), Payne heard the arguments on all sides. She wasn't surprised when the recall came -- nor with the result.

"I've heard the rumblings from a lot of people, but as a business person, I have to be a little careful," Payne said. "It's really sad when you think how it used to be."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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