While I understand that this web site is not a newspaper, and therefore does not conform to standards and practices, however loosely applied, in professional journalism, I felt compelled to respond to the untruths, distortions, innuendo and slurs on Mayor Jennifer Dougherty's reputation set forth in the recent two part "article" written by David Koontz and published March 13 and 14 on your web site.
It is clear upon reading this diatribe that a human being's ability to turn fantasy into personal reality is boundless; nevertheless, such fantasy should not be used to attack the character of a public official without rebuttal, particularly when the public official in question, Mayor Dougherty, acted in a manner not only praiseworthy but beyond reproach.
For the record, I am the attorney for and a member of the Frederick Presbyterian Church referred to at length in Mr. Koontz's missive, and have proudly represented and worshipped at this Church for the past several years. The facts of my involvement with Mayor Dougherty regarding the issue of the church's addition are as follows:
On January 29, 2002, I held my first and only meeting with Mayor Dougherty. It was neither secret nor private; in attendance were the mayor, the City Zoning Administrator and the City Director of Planning, myself and two members of the church's building committee. (It must be noted that the mayor, according to Mr. Koontz, held at least one meeting with the opponents to the church as well).
At this meeting, the mayor listened politely to us as we discussed the addition, the needs of the church, the processes which had occurred to date, and my legal reasoning under the federal Religious Land Use act ("RLUIPA") for entering into a Consent Agreement with the city. Mayor Dougherty opined, at this meeting and in a letter to me dated the next day, that she would like to see the church and the opponents to the addition enter into binding arbitration over the matter. In this letter she further requested the church to consider reducing the size of the addition.
On February 25, 2002, I responded to Mayor Dougherty with a three page letter and a 12 page memorandum of facts. The letter and the memorandum were distributed to all of the aldermen as well, and have obviously been made public since. I would be happy to provide both to The Tentacle for publication if desired.
In this letter, I reiterated my belief that RLUIPA clearly applied to the Frederick Presbyterian Church's proposed addition, and that entering into a Consent Agreement between the city and the church was specifically envisioned by RLUIPA and was a vastly preferable alternative to both the city and the church than federal court litigation, in which the church would have been successful under RLUIPA.
At the request of my client, however, I respectfully declined Mayor Dougherty's offer of binding arbitration, believing that only city officials, not private parties, should decide issues applying to the city under federal law. Additionally, the church did not accept the mayor's request to reduce the size of the addition, as the church building representatives felt that the addition as proposed was appropriately sized for the purposes of a lobby, an enclosed hallway, wider stairways, an elevator and two handicapped bathrooms.
Late Friday afternoon, on March 1, 2002, Mayor Dougherty responded to my letter, disagreeing with my interpretation of the law and declining to accept the proposed Consent Agreement as proposed by my client. However, she offered a new proposal which would move the church addition three feet further from the neighboring property line of the principal opponents to the church addition and otherwise concurring with the Consent Agreement.
The next day (Saturday), my client's representatives met with their architect and determined that, although this additional modification to the size of the addition would reduce the lobby space to approximately 12' by 15', instead of 15' by 15', and reduce the width of the stairways by 3', it was preferable to accept this compromise than continue the 3½ year old argument. The church's goal has always been to modestly improve this historical but limited structure and venerable house of worship and render it more accessible and supportive to the basic human needs of the congregation when it worships, and to bring together in one place, the young and the elderly, the infirm and the handicapped.
On Monday, March 4, I verbally accepted Mayor Dougherty's offer of March 1 over the telephone, subject, of course, to the approval of the full Board of Aldermen, followed by a letter the next day. It was further outlined by Mayor Dougherty at her press conference the next day, Tuesday.
A draft Consent Agreement was not received by this office from the city for review until late in the afternoon of March 7, the date of the Mayor and Board hearing and approximately the same time it was received by the church's opposition. The facts of the hearing are a matter of public record and were adequately represented by the Frederick News-Post.
There was never a "back room" deal. There was, however, thoughtful and insightful consideration by the Mayor of all sides to the issue, both legal and practical, and a decision was made to compromise based on local zoning law, the facts of the case, and the preemptive force of RLUIPA, which could potentially have cost the city government tens of thousands of dollars.
I personally believe that Mayor Dougherty was also motivated by a desire to take a meaningful step toward restoring peace and compromise in this neighborhood, which has been in controversy for too long. She was willing to take a tough situation head on, was willing to make a decision clearly unpopular with her downtown constituency, and was also able to obtain for the next door neighbors (the only persons who will actually be affected by the addition) an additional three feet of landscaping area, for a total of a six foot strip separating the addition from the property line (which has virtually never been applied in downtown except for the church; take a look around you).
After another lengthy public hearing on this matter, Alderman (David) Lenhart (no rubber stamp vote for the Mayor, obviously), Alderman Marcia Hall (whose ethics are unbelievably and unfairly maligned by Mr. Koontz) and Alderman (Joseph) Baldi, who did take the time to obtain an Ethics Commission opinion, authorizing him to participate in the vote despite his membership in the church, as specifically requested by the attorney for the opponents, each voted to support the Mayor's proposed Consent Agreement solution.
In conclusion, the decisions reached by the mayor and a majority of the board were fair, appropriate, above-board, considerate of all points of view, and were in keeping with the law, both local and federal. As a citizen of the City of Frederick who lives, works and worships within city limits, I am proud of the actions of the mayor and board, who truly and fairly represented their city on March 7.