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September 1, 2004

Thurmont's Comedy of Errors - Omission and Commission

John W. Ashbury

Movie maker Oliver Stone, a master of conspiracy theories, would be having a field day if he were a resident of Thurmont these days.

It all started last December when the mayor and town commissioners began their discussion of the current fiscal year budget. It culminated last Tuesday night when the town fathers approved a resolution to "correct an administrative error" and to establish April 15, 2004, as the start date for new water and sewer rates for town residents.

The unfortunate part, and the part that leads to all manner of conspiracy theories, is that on May 24 last the town passed a resolution to increase those water sewer rates from $6 per thousand gallons to $10.10 per thousand gallons. That's a hike of 68.3 percent.

Please Note! The water and sewer bills that were mailed on August 1 reflected the new rates back to the April 15 date.

According to some residents, they received a letter from the town saying the new rates would be effective July 1. Other residents recalled seeing a notice on the town's Cable TV site which also stated that the start date would be the first day of the new fiscal year - July 1. Town officials could not verify either "notification" of the July 1, 2004, start time for the new rates.

And both newspapers which cover Thurmont on a regular basis, reported that the new rates would begin at the start of the new fiscal year. Town officials, when asked why they didn't call the press to correct this error replied that it wasn't their responsibility.

To top all of this off, when residents asked for a copy of the resolution as late as Tuesday of last week, they were given a document which stated the effective date of the new rates would be May 24, the day the resolution was passed.

Tara Buck, reporter for The Frederick News-Post, asked for a copy of the minutes of that May 24 mayor and board session on Tuesday and when she arrived for the meeting last week, she was given a copy which said, on the fourth and last page, that "as there was no further discussion, the meeting was adjourned at 7:15 P.M."

Just prior to that statement was a transcription of the meeting's discussion of the resolution - including the effective date of May 24. It was attached to the minutes.

As the discussion commenced last week, Mayor Martin Burns began reading from a document he said was the minutes of that May 24th meeting. However, Ms. Buck's copy of the minutes, and those in the hands of some residents, did not include the information Mayor Burns was reading.

When challenged on this issue, he said it was an administrative error and that both the audio and the video tape of that May 24 meeting included what he was reading. This raises the question as to why this part of the transcription was not included in what was made available to the public from a week after May 24 until just before 7 P.M. on August 24 when last week's mayor and board meeting began.

So many other questions arise about this mess that it suggests a conspiracy to hoodwink the public without even looking for it.

For example, how could Mayor Burns read the resolution into the record - clearly stating that the effective date was May 24 - and not see the error?

Then, how could he sign that resolution at a later date and not see that the effective date was in error and not in line with what he and the councilmen discussed on May 24?

And another question arises. How could the council approve the minutes for that May 24 session when they attended it and knew - or should have known - the minutes were incomplete.

At another recent public session of the mayor and board, the mayor said it was the responsibility of the citizens to make themselves aware of what is happening in Thurmont - as he has to do when he is absent from a meeting.

But what is a citizen to do when the information from the town office is inadvertently, or otherwise, withheld from the public?

There can be no excuse for the horrendous fiasco surrounding the increase in the water and sewer rates. Certainly an increase was necessary, but to place the entire burden on the residents while keeping water and sewer hookup fees artificially low is unfair at the very least. They should have been increased at the same time. (Editor's Note: Hookup fees are likely to skyrocket before the end of the year.)

The way this was handled is an indication of very serious administrative problems within the town office. The office staff works under the supervision of Rick May, and he is responsible for errors of omission and commission.

Mr. May has been on the job for about 25 years. He certainly should know how all this works - and how to avoid the disastrous debacle that surrounds this case.

Oft times we become complacent when we stay in the same job toooooo long. With Thurmont becoming bigger every day, then our public officials - both elected and appointed - have to be far more vigilant in the matters before them.

William Shakespeare must have been thinking of the future, and how the Town of Thurmont would handle a water and sewer rate increase when he wrote "A Comedy of Errors."

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