(4/16) Five of the candidates running for commissioner in the town's April 26 election participated in a forum Thursday night at the town office.
Two seats of the four-seat board of commissioners will be available in April. Commissioner Joyce Rosensteel, who is running for re-election, was not present because of a family illness.
Present were candidates Cliff Sweeney, Glenn Blanchard, Chris Staiger, Harold Craig Jr. and Catherine Forrence. The League of Women Voters ran the forum, which was sponsored by the Emmitsburg Dispatch.
The forum was not a debate. Candidates responded to questions submitted by the public and read by league President Gail Bowerman.
Mr. Sweeney, perhaps the most experienced politician among those running, held his ground. When other candidates politely criticized COPE (Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg), a civic organization that has twice
defeated annexations that would have led to residential development, he didn't hold back.
"I think the whole town knows how I feel about COPE," he said. "If they don't, they will now."
The audience of 50 laughed. Mr. Sweeney said COPE has "destroyed our community sprit" and "destroyed our town completely."
He concluded that it was nothing short of a "political activist group set here to take over the council."
Mr. Sweeney's probably made his biggest point when he said the town needs a diverse board. Now, two of the four commissioners are members of COPE.
"Most people, if you've lived here eight years, know me by now," Mr. Sweeney said. "I was commissioner of planning and zoning. I helped put the Silo Hill Park in. I helped map out the streets in town. I hope to continue working with the town ... I've been to a couple
meetings. The board is so split, it's outrageous. I've never seen anything like it in my life"
Mr. Sweeney was the only candidate to suggest installing residential bypasses and improving alleyways as a solution to traffic congestion. Everyone else suggested bypasses for trucks.
Regarding COPE, Mr. Blanchard said it has strayed away from the grassroots organization it once was. "Instead of serving the community's needs, it serves one group."
Mr. Blanchard's position on growth is that developers are here to stay; the town has to decide where to develop, then tell the developers what to do proactively, not reactively.
Mr. Blanchard, a public school teacher in Tuscarora, said he always tells his students to get involved in politics. He realized he could set an example by running for office. Like the other candidates, he would like to
add a fifth commissioner to the board. The board has no one to break a tie unless the mayor invokes his right to do so, which he occasionally does.
It would take a change in the town's charter to add a fifth board member.
Mr. Staiger was willing to cut to the chase. "The real issue," of governance, he said, is that a "collegial atmosphere" governed the board in the past. "Now with other people getting involved, that system ... has broken down and perhaps that is why we need more structure."
As chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission, Mr. Staiger identified the comprehensive plan as a way to manage growth. "The community feels we have a very good comprehensive plan. The problem is, we have
no way to enforce it," he said.
The plan isn't linked to the planning and zoning ordinances, which it must be to have clout, he said.
"One thing that always amazes me is the entrepreneurial spirit here," Mr. Staiger said. 'A number of people in town have their own businesses."
The town should embrace new entrepreneurs, he said. "We have a whole Main Street that used to be shop fronts that are all homes. As commissioners, we need to make room for businesses and houses."
Houses that once cost $200,000 jumped in value to $400,000 in just a few years, he said. Now people who want a $200,000 house can't find one. The town needs more houses in that lower price range.
Mr. Craig did not think the comprehensive plan was sufficient. "There should be no annexations until an APFO is in place," he said.
An Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance limits the pace of growth to the schools, roads, sewers and water resources in a municipality. Several towns in the county have APFOs, but Emmitsburg does not.
As a founding member of COPE, Mr. Craig defended it. He said it represents "a large number of the town's residents."
Mr. Craig was concise. He favors commercial development because it adds to the town's tax base. But, "until we have the infrastructure, we can't develop residential properties."
He especially opposed annexing properties into town so that developers could get rich, "then run away."
Ms. Forrence said, "COPE has brought the voice of the people to Emmitsburg." During the forum, she frequently referred to the fact that she does her research and is "always prepared" when she attends meetings.
She demonstrated an openness to new ideas when she said, "I think it's important to talk to the officials and residents to gauge" their views before making decisions.