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July 9, 2002

Intimidation and Official Records

Norman M. Covert

You read it here first. We urged in an earlier commentary that the city and county not blink in the face of the overrated American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which said it would "be watching" events in Frederick regarding the placement of the Ten Commandments stone in Memorial Grounds Park.

Now the local guru of the "Better-Red-than-Dead" club in Frederick has demanded to see all the documents in possession of the local government regarding that allegedly offensive stone. It's a cost efficient way to get the city and county to cease any opposition to demands by the underdog socialists.

News reports quote the group as saying - disingenuously - it doesn't want to have the city pay the cost of litigation. This presupposes the city would lose if the ACLU follows up with the threat to sue for removal of the stone. We can turn the other cheek of the gluteus maximus and warn them if the city wins, the ACLU must pay!

What documents might be available for release under the demand? There probably isn't much in the way of official records. Gut feeling says there might have been a letter to the mayor and board from the local Eagles Aerie, but it probably no longer exists in City Hall. The land records are in Sandra Dalton's repository at the courthouse, but nothing in those documents refers to the stone.

For the record, the stone was placed at Courthouse Square in 1958, near the intersection of North Court and West Church streets. In 1983 the stone was moved without fanfare to Memorial Grounds Park when then-Mayor Ron Young was completing renovation of the building for our new City Hall. The Public Works Department moved the stone, probably without even a printed work order.

When our Veterans Committee for Memorial Park, Inc., met with the mayor and board, city planners and historic district commission we shared copies of our drawings and cost analysis. The same documents were provided the county commissioners. That was in 1997 and they should be around somewhere.

The committee has copies of the documents if any are needed by the city and county, but the only way the ACLU will get them from us is in the discovery process of a court action. The documents, however, will only support the contention that the park is a cemetery because it shows location of vaults, remains and stones, and contains numerous historical markers and monuments. That will defeat the ACLU.

Despite the pasting the Frederick News-Post takes from readers these days for its change in journalistic style, its microfilm is a better repository for information than City Hall. The News-Post is a daily record of events in Frederick for more than the past century. One would have expected it to report on the donation and dedication of the Ten Commandments Stone at the old Courthouse Square - and it did.

The foregoing should not be construed to say the News-Post does not cover such dedications today, it does, but in the "olden days" the News-Post "covered" the event. If space allows today, a story might go with a picture. We do understand advertising space dictates editorial space.

But when Liberty, the World War I monument in Memorial Grounds Park, was dedicated in 1924, the News-Post printed a roundup story and a complete slate of activities with a printed schedule as events led up to the dedication.

Following the event, a full story on the dedication with sidebars accompanied the complete text of the speeches. That microfilm may be the only record extant on the event other than our committee's dedication booklet, which drew much information from the News-Post archives.

We have reason to question the city's stewardship of historic documents. Remember the flap in February about monies collected and/or spent from the mysterious water and sewer taxing districts? Seems to me it was something around $14 million of which no one could verify either its collection or disposition. As a side note, the city still has not answered Mizmayor's questions; at least we citizens don't know what happened to the money.

Mizmayor went searching for copies of minutes and ordinances, but her staff could provide little - they couldn't find any. That series of non-answered questions to Mizmayor may have precipitated the firing of former Director of Permits Gary Hessong.

What a surprise it would be if Mizmayor were able to turn over any documents of consequence to the ACLU. We have little confidence in the city legal services office being able to do much more than wring hands and pace the floor. This requires legal intensity and courage, not paper shuffling.

Which brings up the positives of our feisty, hell-bent-for-leather chief executive. Here's a time when we want Mizmayor to be on our side in this fight to preserve history and tradition. She just may be the right man for the job. If the past six months are an indication of power and resolve, she' s strong enough to send the ACLU packing.

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