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Commissioner takes aim at competitors

Chris Patterson
The Gazette

Emmitsburg's upcoming town election is generating some heat between candidates, with allegations flying most recently from the incumbent, town Commissioner Clifford Sweeney.

Sweeney, 39, purchased an advertisement in the local monthly paper, The Emmitsburg Dispatch, for the April edition.

The advertisement, published April 1, takes shots at fellow candidates Bill O'Neil and Harold Craig, both members of the board of directors of Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg (COPE). O'Neil is president and Craig is vice president of the group.

COPE's secretary and treasurer were also criticized, though neither is running for office.

Sweeney said Wednesday that he wanted Emmitsburg residents to know about Craig and O'Neil, which is why he purchased the ad.

The advertisement criticized COPE, the organization that successfully circulated petitions to bring a more than 20-acre annexation to referendum vote.

Sweeney voted for the annexation.

"I'm not just doing this to run for commissioner. I'm doing this because I'm a concerned citizen... I also live here and am concerned if COPE takes over the town council. I'm concerned about the track it will take. I believe the town will suffer greatly," he said.

Sweeney was one of three commissioners who voted for the annexation and is the only incumbent up for reelection. Board President Patrick Boyle is not running.

The most potentially damning criticism Sweeney levied was that letters written by Craig and O'Neil to the Maryland Department of the Environment gave "false information that may cause tax-paying Emmitsburg citizens" to pay fines and other "hardships."

Craig acknowledges he sent a letter to the environmental agency in October 2003 ­ a letter obtained by The Gazette - alleging the town "discharged raw sewage into Toms Creek eleven out of thirty days in September 2003."

In addition, O'Neil sent an e-mail to the Environmental Protection Agency, Craig said, not the MDE. A copy of the e-mail, obtained by The Gazette, included basically the same information as Craig's letter to the MDE. It requested an investigation to determine if the town violated the Clean Water Act or any other federal laws.

Both the mayor and town manager have refuted the complaints filed by O'Neil and Craig.

In December 2003, town manager Dave Haller told The Gazette that there was only one sewer main overflow of 300,000 gallons on Sept. 23, 2003, and that was caused by rain. The sewage treatment plant exceeded its capacity on other occasions during the month, he said, but none of those incidents resulted in a spill of raw sewage.

Though the state department stated in a recent letter to the town that it will impose $7,000 in fines for spills last year, the town would have been eligible for those fines regardless of the letters, according to agency spokesperson Rich MacIntyre.

The town is required by law to report any spills over 10,000 gallons ­ considered "major" spills - to the state department, he said.

MacIntyre said the letters would have not had any influence regarding penalties or the consent order but would have acted merely as information for the agency to investigate. The agency gets that information from the public all the time, he said.

Sweeney's advertisement also states that O'Neil was not reelected to his community's homeowners association board, which O'Neil acknowledged in recent conversations with The Gazette.

"If the people living around him don't trust him, how can Emmitsburg's citizens?" Sweeney wrote.

O'Neil, who lives in section one of Pembrook Woods, said Wednesday that there is a simple reason why he wasn't reelected to the association's board. During the past six months, 45 homeowners in sections two and three moved into the community and they voted for people they know, he said.

The ad also criticized Craig as having "little regard for families" and wanting "zero growth and zero traffic."

Craig said he was most concerned about the innuendo made because he is single. Craig said Sweeney's statements were "strange."

In addition, Craig said he was upset about the statements that said he wants "zero growth," in town, which he denies vehemently.

Craig has publicly stated that he supports commercial, but not residential, development in the town because commercial growth will not create as severe a drain on the town's ailing water and sewer infrastructure.

Sweeney said he has received a letter from Craig advising him that Craig may sue.

Craig's letter, addressed to The Emmitsburg Dispatch and Sweeney, claimed both parties "libeled" him with "false, malicious and defamatory statements."

Craig wrote that he demanded a retraction and an apology. In addition, he expected the newspaper to allow him to print a half-page rebuttal from all persons libeled in the advertisement for free.

Craig sent another letter only to the Dispatch that included the information he wanted published.

"I will forego any legal recourse available to me against the Dispatch" if the rebuttal is printed for free, the letter said.

Concerned about a possible lawsuit, Sweeney said he did not substantively err in any of his allegations. Despite that, he will ask the Dispatch to print one minor correction regarding a statement Craig made about "refugees" in town. He said it is also important that residents know that the Dispatch did not write his advertisement.

"The Dispatch did not write my [advertisement]; I wrote it," he said. "The Dispatch helped correct my grammar... and punctuation... and asked me to take some things out."

Sweeney said he refused to change any of the substance of the advertisement.

Publisher Raymond Buchheister said he told Craig the paper would respond to him within 10 days, the allotted time in Craig's letter. The matter has been referred to their attorney, he said.

Buchheister also said the paper did ask Sweeney to remove some statements from the advertisement. The newspaper did try to verify the factual statements as much as they could, but did not attempt to do anything about the opinion statements.

"This is a difference of opinion over a public issue," Buchheister said. "We feel The Emmitsburg Dispatch is here to allow people a platform to speak and that's what we think we are doing

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