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April 11, 2013

Petty Local Governance

Zachary Peters

Government at the local level is the most effective, active, and best of all, personal level of government. While local governments are the place where the most gets done, they are also prone to petty issues.


When endorsing Wendi Peters for re-election to the Mount Airy Town Council in 2008, Gov. Robert Ehrlich said: "Local level government is the most difficult level in which to work...At that level, you have the right to expect a person who is honest, transparent and has your best interest at heart,” and that could not be more correct.


It is only leaders at the local level that you could run into any day of the week around your town or county at the grocery store and discuss policy. But with this personable aspect, there comes a downfall. Local government is engulfed with petty issues and personal vendettas.


This is perfectly exemplified in Mount Airy. It has always been characterized by its “small town charm” and local inviting atmosphere…until recently. Under the leadership of Mayor Pat Rockinberg and his political appointees on many of the town’s commissions, the town has adopted a strict “no growth” attitude coupled with personal opinions on aesthetics in regards to enforcing the law. Keep in mind the mayor and three of the five council members live in one of the town’s newest subdivisions.


Most notably, Mount Airy’s Planning and Zoning Commission is notorious for denying and over-regulating signage for local business and organizations based on petty issues – such as aesthetics or scrolling type. Mount Airy’s “small town charm” is being shattered by increased governmental regulations, including more than 30 pages of bogus limitations in regards to putting up a simple sign.


Speaking from personal experience after attending the commission’s May 2012 meeting, one request for painting on a side of a downtown building (no sign was going up) was denied due to the fact that the font did not portray the same “historic” font of other businesses in the area. Members of the commission claimed the business just would not fit in. It’s amusing that a few weeks prior to this meeting this particular business celebrated its 40-year anniversary in town.


Maybe I'm the crazy one, but this is simply not the government's job. Especially in a small town, the government has no business telling a privately-owned entity what kind of font they should have in their logo. This commission even requested the lettering on the window of the Maryland State Police office in town be in a “historic” font.


Even further, the latest overarching actions of the Mount Airy Planning and Zoning Commission have been focused on the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Company. Some time ago, the company replaced its dated advertising sign on its carnival grounds with a new and updated version featuring an electronic message board – specifically to show the time, temperature, and most notably the upcoming fundraising events for the vital organization that relies primarily on donations from the community. The sign upgrade was no doubt an added benefit to the fire company. The sign is located on MD 27, a major thoroughfare, and provides free advertising for the company whose volunteers risk their lives daily for our safety.


Months after the sign has been up, the Planning and Zoning Commission found the sign to be illegal, not following the Town Code. In a letter from the town’s administrator to the fire company on behalf of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Monika Weierbach stated: “On Friday, March 8, between 3:36pm and 3:38pm, the sign was observed displaying messages that….the formatting of changes did not comply with the conditions set forth in the Code.”


Is this two minute window of free advertising for a life-saving organization really that much of an issue? Have the governmental bodies of the Town of Mount Airy gotten so bored with denying privately owned signs based on their font that now they must attack the volunteer fire company?


This is without a doubt a case of a commission overstepping its bounds with unnecessary regulations for not only business, but also now emergency services. This is all in addition to blocking new businesses from opening in commercially zoned, empty and desolate buildings, and virtually halting any and all growth within the town.


However, it's easy for a commission to become overbearing with regulations and make up their own rules when its only mission is to carry out the mayor's anti-growth agenda and have a council president who is too concerned with future elections or hurting feelings to take a stance on any issue.


In economic times like these, we should be welcoming new businesses into every town and taking the increasingly large foot of government off of existing businesses' throats. Not only that, but we should be helping our emergency volunteer services with its fundraising and advertising, rather than telling them that having a harmless scrolling sign is unlawful. We should be growing our commercial tax base and cutting spending, rather than attempting to virtually stop things in time or allowing absolutely no growth.


Local government is the heart and soul of our nation, but in order to be as productive as it can be, personal views on petty issues such as aesthetics must be set aside. If you want to have “small town charm,” try letting the volunteer emergency services – whose members would readily die for your safety – have the ability to advertise however it wishes on its own property.


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