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Community group, town argue about spot at local farmers' market

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

(8/26/2004) Catherine Forrence of Emmitsburg wants to stand at a booth at the town's weekly farmers' market and register people to vote, not just as a certified volunteer with the Frederick County Board of Elections, but also as president of Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg (COPE). 

Emmitsburg officials welcomed her as a certified volunteer, but do not want her to advertise that she is also representing COPE, the nonprofit group that works to slow development in town.

The town also wants to limit her participation in the farmers' market to once per month to allow other community groups to participate if they so desire.

Forrence disagrees with both those conditions, even though she signed an agreement with the town limiting her to once a month in the market, and forbidding her to talk about political issues.

Though COPE has not provided any money to set up the table, Forrence and others in the group said they want to "sponsor" the table as a community service.

The Frederick County Board of Elections certified Forrence in late July to accept voter registrations. She then asked Emmitsburg Mayor James Hoover for permission to set up a table at the farmers' market held every Friday on the northbound side of South Seton Avenue.

Hoover approved the request on a "trial basis," he said in a letter dated July 27. The letter permits Forrence to set up the table the first Friday of every month. She set up the first registration on Aug. 6.

Now Forrence is asking why something she perceives as beneficial to the community is being limited to only once per month.

The deadline for voter registration for Frederick County is 9 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 12, which would leave seven Fridays remaining before the deadline. Forrence will only be able to set up twice before that date, but wants to do it every week, she said.

Hoover said Forrence is being restricted to once per month because the farmers' market Committee, made up of three volunteers from the community, wanted to allow other community groups to set up a table at the weekly event.

Only one slot is available for a community table each week at the market. As of Tuesday, no community group had yet requested the slot, he said.

Forrence is also concerned because she may not advertise at the farmers' market or on the town's cable channel 99 that the table is "sponsored" by COPE.

In a letter to the mayor and town manager David Haller, dated Aug. 20, town Commission President Bill O'Neil, the founder and former president of COPE, asked why a recently televised announcement about the voter registration table on the town's cable channel was edited to remove COPE's name. He suggested the editing was for "purely political reasons."

Referencing other nonprofit groups, such as the Lions Club, the Knights of Columbus and the Emmitsburg Business and Professional Association, O'Neil wrote that he expects COPE to be identified in the cable channel announcements in the future.

"Otherwise, similar postings for local events sponsored by all other nonprofit organizations may be subject to the same anonymity; leaving only the event, date time and location -- without the host's or sponsoring organization's name listed in the notice. After all, what is fair for one, is fair for all," he wrote.

O'Neil also argued that COPE, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, should be permitted to have the table there each week.

A 501(c)(4) organization is a nonprofit tax status for a group organized exclusively for social welfare. The organization may engage in some political activities, but they are not permitted to be the organization's primary activity, according to the Internal Revenue Service.

Hoover said he sees COPE's primary activities as political and that is not something the committee wants at the weekly farmers' market.

Other groups such as the Lions and Knights of Columbus, to which O'Neil referred in his letter, are not political organizations, Hoover said, however any group that wants to set up voter registration at the market would have the same restrictions.

Hoover said Forrence, who is an authorized representative of the Board of Elections, may run the voter registration, and the voter registration will be announced on the television. But neither the table nor the cable announcements may bear COPE's name, he said.

"Do they want to register voters or advertise for COPE? Which is more important?" Hoover said.

Forrence is also being prohibited from discussing candidates and town political issues while manning the table, according to the agreement.

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