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As Long as We Remember...

June 28, 2005

“The Insolence of Office”

Roy Meachum

Reporter Katherine Heerbrandt deserves local taxpayers’ thanks. Her lead in The Gazette’s June 16 story: “The City of Frederick has at least three times the number of attorneys on staff as four similar-sized cities in Maryland…”

The story has a singularly appropriate headline: “Frederick awash in lawyers.” Mayor Jennifer Dougherty explained to Ms. Heerbrandt:

“I have called on lawyers to defend the city from a variety of illegitimate, frivolous and self-serving lawsuits. There does not seem to be any willingness to do anything but call a lawyer. It’s too bad, really. We’re just trying to get things done.”

Of course, the courts have mostly disagreed with Her Honor. Far from “illegitimate” and “frivolous,” the lawsuits have generally found favor in judges’ eyes. The sole victory I can recall came with federal approval of the Ten Commandments’ arrangement. It is “self-serving,” she was right, but only to those who believe church and state should be separated.

That story broke on the same day (last Friday) that Frederick News-Post staff writer George Dorsey reported: “The City of Frederick must abide by the terms of its deal with Riverside property owners, according to Judge G. Edward Dwyer, Jr.,” who ordered the issuance of building permits.

Ms. Dougherty had tried to hold the permits to force the owners to pay some $1.5 million in additional impact fees. Reporter Dorsey wrote that the demand violated contracts signed separately by the current mayor and her predecessor, Jim Grimes!

You can’t imagine any lawyer recommending an appeal. But the mayor’s spokesperson, Nancy Poss, said about the judgment, once the papers arrive at City Hall: “we will evaluate the decision.”

In other words, doors remain open for Ms. Dougherty to try to get her way, her favorite trick. And taxpayers’ purses be damned. About the Ten Commandments’ case, she told a reporter legal fees were covered by insurance, as if both the premiums and probable increased costs will not add to City Hall bills.

And what about those other “illegitimate, frivolous and self-serving lawsuits?” Ms. Dougherty’s handling of Stewart Seal’s firing cost a bundle to settle and we were not told how much the city’s legal bills ran.

Take the matter of Democratic hopeful Ron Young’s plea that the mayoral three-year residency requirements were not constitutional. Even after Ms. Dougherty’s Baltimore attorney switched it to federal court, obviously hoping the crowded docket would ensnare the case until this year’s elections were decided, City Hall still lost.

At that point Her Honor cancelled her veto of legislation, passed by a majority, which dropped the requirement to a single year, the same as running for the board. When Alderman Dave Lenhart filed suit to challenge the veto’s legality, Dougherty backers accused him of blatant partisanship. Only silence with the mayor’s U-turn, leaving us to wonder what they’re saying now.

Surely I’m not the only person to feel the “self-serving” crack was aimed at Mr. Lenhart, who put a lie to that approach by moving his family to Georgia, effectively ending his political career around here. His personal departure will probably come late this summer.

“Unvetoing” her veto saved her further embarrassment but didn’t put a penny back for the healthy legal fees incurred in preparing for court, on either part. And so it goes.

One educated guesser estimated more than a dozen suits against the city remain pending. Several deal with the mayor’s handling and termination of city employees, like Mr. Seal’s.

In all matters, great and small, Her Honor displays what William Shakespeare called “the insolence of office.” No higher proof can be offered than the fatuous statement Frederick’s mayor made to reporter Katherine Heerbrandt.

“Illegitimate, frivolous and self-serving” might be best applied to the way Jennifer Dougherty has tried to run the city. Tried and failed. Look at all of our money she has had to spend on lawyers.

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