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Commissioners O'Neil & Elder to be issued Cease and Desist orders

Pamela Rigaux
Frederick News-Post

(4/22) Five days shy of his bid for re-election, Mayor James Hoover didn't follow Town Manager Dave Haller's advice to give the accused a chance to respond before convicting them.

One of the accused is a man running against the mayor in Tuesday's election, Commissioner Art Elder. The other accused is Commissioner William O'Neil Jr.

The report of the Emmitsburg Ethics Committee was released to the public Wednesday.

By Thursday, Mayor Hoover was ready to act on it.

During a public meeting, he made a motion to request the Emmitsburg Ethics Committee provide "cease and desist" orders to both commissioners as recommended in the ethics report. That motion passed.

"The citizens of Emmitsburg now have to speak," Rosemary McDermott, Mr. Elder's and Mr. O'Neil's attorney, said. "They have to vote for a new mayor."

Mr. O'Neil was not present, but he sent an e-mail earlier this week in which he stated his opinion of the investigation:

"One can only hope that Emmitsburg's voters will see this committee report for what it truly is: a smear campaign that was solely intended to ruin the good names and honor of two men who have done nothing but good since taking the oath of office ...."

The Emmitsburg Ethics Committee found Mr. Elder guilty of using his position as commissioner for personal gain.

The committee found Mr. O'Neil, the board's president, guilty of over-reaching his authority as a commissioner.

The committee recommends "cease and desist orders" be issued to both men in matters relating to Silo Hill Car Wash and Custom Image Printing. Those companies were cited as being involved in their unethical conduct.

Mr. Haller told the board Thursday that to act on the committee's recommendations is to agree with the findings.

"Let's don't rush into something that is so binding on someone," Mr. Haller said. "The board needs to give the commissioners the opportunity to refute the findings."

Mr. Elder abstained from voting on Mr. Hoover's motion.

Neither Mr. Elder nor Mr. O'Neil have met with the ethics committee to give their point-of-view.

Mr. O'Neil repeatedly said over the last few months that he would only meet with the committee in an open forum. The committee refused to give him that forum.

On Thursday, Commissioner Dianne Walbrecker turned to Mr. Elder and suggested now was the time for him to give his input.

He replied, "This is all one-sided." When she suggested he say more, he said, "I'll have my day in court."

During public comment, Sabrina Paxton-Daily and several people said the investigation was unfair and incomplete. The committee did not interview key witnesses such as Ms. Paxton-Daily, who would have defended Mr. Elder and Mr. O'Neil.

Commissioner Joyce Rosensteel, who along with Ms. Walbrecker and the mayor, voted in favor of a guilty finding, said, "We haven't heard the other side of the story ... I don't see how we can resolve the issue."

According to the report, Mr. Elder violated the town's charter in two ways. First, he tried to circumvent the county's zoning law to help a printing business he formerly owned.

Secondly, he failed to recuse himself from voting on issues related to a direct competitor to Emmitsburg Car Wash, a business he owns.

Mr. O'Neil over-reached his authority by pressuring town staff to investigate Mr. Elder's competitors instead of going before the board, which would have been the proper way to conduct himself, the report states.

Mr. Elder failed to act appropriately in relation to The Chronicle Press, a company that has been owned by the Elders for generations, the report said.

A May 4, 2004 memo from town planner Michael Lucas states, "Commissioner Elder stopped by my office to exchange morning greetings ... After a brief talk, the conversation turned to his cousin Lisa Elder's plan to take over the former CIP Printing located at 107 S. Seton Ave. of which Elder is both the former owner of the business, as well as the building, and the current owner of its equipment which is currently housed at that location."

According to the memo, Mr. Elder told Mr. Lucas that his cousin and her new partner intended to open the business "immediately" upon buying it.

Mr. Lucas told Mr. Elder he was "90 percent sure" they would have to go through Frederick County's permitting procedure.

Then Mr. Elder "asked me directly, 'Is there no way you can get around Frederick County?'"

Later on, Mr. Lucas told Mr. Haller and Mayor James Hoover that he was "uncomfortable" with what he considered a "covert attempt" to circumvent the proper permitting procedure.

The Ethics Commission report said Mr. O'Neil inappropriately attempted to direct town staff.

In July 2004 the town received a complaint that someone had set up scaffolding around a house in a public right of way; the person using the scaffolding was cleaning the house with a red liquid substance.

Mayor Hoover sent a town employee to investigate. The scaffolding was determined to be potentially dangerous and the person was told to go to the town office to get a permit.

The person didn't want to stop working, and instead made a call. "A few minutes later, Commissioners O'Neil and Elder arrived," the report stated.

Mr. O'Neil ordered town staff, Jenny Joy and Mike Lucas, into the conference room, along with the subject of the complaint and Mr. Elder. Mr. O'Neil began to "scold" Mr. Lucas and Ms. Joy for treating the person using the scaffold disrespectfully.

"When Mr. Lucas replied that the mayor had asked for this action to be taken, Commissioner O'Neil reportedly said, 'The mayor has no authority to tell you what to do, you are looking at the power.'" He pointed to himself and Mr. Elder. They then informed town staff there was no violation and the matter was dropped.

"Both Ms. Joy and Mr. Lucas reported the incident to the mayor, and continue to feel threatened to this day," the report said.

Commission candidate Catherine Forrence said part of the money spent on the investigation, $8,484, could have been used on parks. "The committee's attempt to find fact where there is only hearsay" is unfair.

"We don't have power as individual commissioners," said Chris Staiger, also a candidate. "When the individuals think that they themselves can exercise power," then it goes too far, he said. But the town may not have clearly defined the relationship among the mayor, the board and town staff.

The members of the Ethics Committee are Chairman Ted Brennan, Vice Chair Scott McClendon and Secretary Stephen Kleindienst.

Read other news stories related to the Emmitsburg Town Government