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August 27, 2009

Dougherty’s Deceit

John W. Ashbury

It isn’t obvious – well maybe it is – that one of the most irritating actions any politician can take is assuming credit for the actions and deeds of others. Former Frederick Mayor Jennifer Dougherty has become a master at it, and if the voters in the upcoming city election re-elect her, they will get exactly what they deserve.


She has claimed throughout the current campaign that she has changed, but can anyone really be sure of that. A leopard can’t change its spots. Nor can a zebra change its’ stripes. She proved in four years in the city’s top job that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


In an article by Adam Behsudi in The Frederick News-Post last week, Ms. Dougherty “pointed to her own actions at increasing a homestead tax credit in the city and the few hundred in savings she saw in her tax bill as a result.”


What she didn’t tell the audience at the forum for mayoral candidates at Frederick Community College was that it wasn’t by her efforts that the homestead property tax credit for city property owners was passed by the Board of Aldermen over her strenuous objections.


Perhaps a little explanation is necessary here. Prior to the actions of the aldermen in 2005, property taxes were limited by state and local law to a maximum increase of 10 percent. For example, if you paid taxes on an assessment of $100,000 last year, then you would be taxed on a maximum assessment increase of $110,000 this year.


At present both city and county taxpayers face a maximum increase of only five percent in taxable assessment. The state continues to hold to the 10 percent rule. (The fire tax imposed on all Frederick County property owners is applied on the full assessed value of the property.)


In the summer of 2004, then Alderman David Lenhart approached then Mayor Dougherty with the idea of reducing the taxable assessment to just 100 percent, not the 110 percent then in effect. At the time property assessments were skyrocketing and, therefore, property taxes were doing the same despite city officials’ claim that they weren’t “weren’t raising taxes.” It was the state’s faulty, they said, that tax bills were climbing so fast.


John Angel, the budget director, and John Leisenring, then Mayor Dougherty’s right hand man, agreed with Mr. Lenhart that the city could operate efficiently at the 100 percent level, even though it would lose between $5 and $6 million in new revenues. Mr. Lenhart even prepared spreadsheets detailing this approach.


However, both Mr. Angel and Mr. Leisenring were extremely wary of Mayor Dougherty’s reaction to the proposal and told Mr. Lenhart they would not “buck” her on this issue.


Mr. Lenhart, after receiving a strongly negative attitude on the issue from the mayor, approached each of his fellow aldermen on this idea, giving them details, displaying the spreadsheets, and asking for their support.


Alderman Donna Kuzemchak was non-committal – likely because she hadn’t received her marching orders from the mayor. Alderman Marcia Hall, whose strong suit isn’t numbers, analysis and details, didn’t really seem to understand the concept.


Aldermen Bill Hall and Joe Baldi were immediately on board.


So, after talking to Mayor Dougherty several times and having the “quietus” put on the proposal, he finally demanded in October that the matter be placed on the agenda of a public meeting in November. She refused. She wanted to know, as she had said from the beginning, “what services” Mr. Lenhart would cut so his proposal could be implemented.


Mr. Lenhart’s response was to provide data showing that no new or expanded services were in the proposed 2006 budget and that the only thing increasing by keeping the homestead tax rate at 110% was the city’s bank account.


Mr. Lenhart won this argument and his proposal was put on the November 18, 2004, agenda. The mayor was furious.


As that meeting opened, Mayor Dougherty announced that the proposal was being removed from the agenda because the city’s legal staff said “it violated the charter.”


(An aside here, it should be noted that one city attorney resigned rather that adhere to “what the mayor wanted” rather than what the law said. At one point in her administration, there were eight lawyers on the city’s payroll.)


Almost immediately there was outrage from Aldermen Lenhart, Bill Hall, and Baldi. That was when the mayor produced a six-page color brochure of “her” plan. She had worked for weeks preparing it and hadn’t bothered to give even a heads-up to all the aldermen. Likely Aldermen Kuzemchak and Marcia Hall knew of her plans.


Angry words were spoken at that meeting without any resolution.


Alderman Lenhart then sought and received an opinion for Maryland’s attorney general, which stated in no uncertain terms, that Mr. Lenhart’s proposal was not a violation of the city’s charter. Score one for the good guys.


At this point Mr. Lenhart and Bill Hall met again with Budget Director Angel, who again said the city wouldn’t suffer – “but he wasn’t going against ‘my’ boss.” It must be recalled that Mayor Dougherty had already displayed a nasty disposition toward city employees who crossed her; i.e. Gary Hessong and Stuart Seal.


Lenhart’s proposal seemed dead until April 2005 when it was brought up again in a workshop. He agreed then – as a compromise – he would vote to lower the rate to 105% instead of the 100% he previously championed. This meant the city would gain an additional $3 million in property tax revenue.


Mayor Dougherty and her two lapdogs continued to fight against even that idea. But their objections failed to convince the other aldermen that providing property tax relief to Frederick’s citizens was a bad idea – as they claimed.


Eventually the Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to cut the Homestead Property Tax Credit to the 105% level. In late June of that same year the county commissioners followed suit.


As stated earlier, Mayor Dougherty claims she is a changed woman – that the acrimony of her previous term, which she and her cronies still blame on Aldermen Lenhart and Bill Hall, won’t occur in her “new” administration.


Certainly she has changed if for no other reason than she is four years older – and perhaps wiser. But her governing style will disrupt the city again and make our beloved Frederick the laughing stock of the state once more.


As was said in the first paragraph, if the voters elect this former mayor, they will get what they deserve. Unfortunately, the citizens who don’t vote for her will have to suffer the consequences of the idiocy of those who do.


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