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Emmitsburg ethics inquiry focuses on two commissioners

Chris Patterson

The Emmitsburg Ethics Commission is recommending further investigation into allegations that town Commissioners Art Elder and Bill O'Neil pressured the town's planning and zoning department to investigate a printing shop in town.

Ted Brennan, president of the town Ethics Commission, said late Wednesday that he is waiting for approval from the town's attorney to release letters from the commission to notify Elder and O'Neil that they are subjects of the investigation.

He said the letters would inform them of the complaints, and the Ethics Commission's decision that further investigation is warranted. The commission will request interviews with the two town commissioners and provide them with all documents related to the complaint.

Business owner David B. Runkle told The Gazette Wednesday that he is one of two people who filed complaints with the Ethics Commission against Elder and O'Neil.

Runkle, who operates CIP Printing on East Main Street, said he filed the complaint because he believes that Elder and O'Neil pressured the town's planning and zoning department to continually and repeatedly investigate his business.

That pressure, Runkle believes, is because his business competes directly with Chronicle Press, a printing company owned by Elder's cousin, Lisa Elder. Lisa Elder has complained to the town that Runkle is running his business illegally.

Commissioner Elder said Wednesday that Runkle's ethics complaint is the result of bitterness because he foreclosed on him for a business transaction that went bad, and that he had nothing to do with his cousin's complaints about Runkle's business.

The commissioner said he has done everything he can to stay out of the complaints between his cousin and Runkle.

He said he thinks it's "a witch hunt," and he is not sure whether he would want to appear before the Ethics Commission in public yet. "I still don't know what they are trying to get me on," Elder said.

Lisa Elder said she did not know anything about the ethics investigation. She said she went to a commissioner for help when she felt nothing was being done about her complaints.

She said she went to O'Neil because he is the president of the commission, has a track record of getting results, and because she has known him since they were both witnesses against the annexation of Silver Fancy Farm two years ago.

O'Neil said that people have the right to know who their accusers are, and he is concerned that he has not yet heard anything official that he is a subject of the investigation.

"I find it appalling and extremely unprofessional by the [ethics] chairman and this committee to not notify people who are a potentially under investigation," he said. "... All we've got is rumor, innuendo and hearsay."

Upon learning of the forthcoming letter from the Ethics Commission, O'Neil said, "It's unfortunate that the chair of the Ethics Committee chooses to communicate through rumor and the media rather than through an official contact with those he intends to accuse. This does not bode well for a fair, impartial hearing, and smacks of a kangaroo court. ... I would be happy to appear before the committee on the condition that it is an open hearing, and that the public is invited to sit. And I look forward to the discussions."

Commissioner Elder used to own Chronicle Press, and Runkle worked with him. Runkle bought the company and the building that housed it in 1999, but he still owed money to Elder. Runkle filed for bankruptcy four years later, and the court told Art Elder to repossess the business to recoup some of his losses, Elder said. Art Elder then sold the business to his cousin, Lisa Elder.

Runkle said opened a new business, CIP Printing (which is owned by his wife, Donna Runkle) near Chronicle Press. He applied for a commercial permit from Frederick County, but was rejected because the new location is zoned for residential.

So he moved his residence to the location, and applied for a home occupation permit. Home occupations are businesses run out of a home under specific conditions and restrictions monitored by local government.

Before long, Runkle complained to the town that Lisa Elder was operating her presses without a permit and violating environmental standards.

Lisa Elder then complained to the town that Runkle was not running a legal home business.

Lisa Elder and her attorney reported to the town that Runkle lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, not in Emmitsburg. Runkle said that is not true, that his wife lives in the house in Pennsylvania, and that the couple is not "separated."

"We just live interesting lives," he said.

Lisa Elder also alleged Runkle has employees, which is not permitted in home occupations.

At a town meeting Monday, Lisa Elder told the Board of Commissioners that nothing has been done about her complaints.

However, town planner Mike Lucas has a 90-page file detailing the investigation he has done regarding complaints by both parties. Lucas told the Board of Commissioners that the town has done the investigation it would normally do.

It did find some infractions on both parties, but has resolved those issues. The town has found no current violations from either Lisa Elder or Runkle.

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