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Commissioners O'Neil & Arthur Elder formally notified of ethics complaints

Chris Patterson

Emmitsburg Commissioners William B. O'Neil Jr. and Arthur Elder received letters from the town Ethics Commission last week officially informing them of the two ethics complaints filed against them, and inviting both commissioners to closed-door meetings with the commission to answer questions about the complaints.

O'Neil said he will only attend public hearings on the inquiry, and that he has hired an attorney. He said a public meeting is the only way he believes he can have a fair hearing.

Elder said in a statement released this week that he "does not care to participate in the Emmitsburg Ethics Committee's 'kangaroo court' and waste town time and taxpayers' money." He said he will not meet with the three-member Ethics Commission.

The complaints allege that Elder and O'Neil used their position as commissioners to harass town businesses, and reference the relationship between both men and a group O'Neil helped to found, Citizens Organized to Preserve Emmitsburg (COPE).

O'Neil was president of the nonprofit organization before being elected to the town commission in April, at which time he resigned as COPE president.

COPE leaders have been outspoken against residential development in town, and both complaints connect the men to COPE and Art Elder's cousin, Lisa Elder, who is also a COPE member.

David B. Runkle, who operates CIP Printing on East Main Street, acknowledged filing one of the complaints.

Runkle said he filed the complaint because he believes Elder and O'Neil pressured the town's planning and zoning department to continually and repeatedly investigate his business, allegations that both Elder and O'Neil deny.

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

Commissioner Elder has said 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.

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.

Lisa Elder 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.

The second complaint was filed by e-mail on Nov. 24 to Brennan. The Gazette received a printed copy of the e-mail, but the name of the sender is blacked out.

The complaint involves Silo Hill Car Wash, which is owned by Kirby Delauter and Carl Athey. Attempts to reach Delauter were unsuccessful, and Athey declined comment until the investigation has been completed.

The town only has one other car wash, owned by Art Elder.

The e-mail sender wrote in part: "There has been an organized attempt from COPE, which we all know involves O'Neil and Elder, to stop the [Silo Hill] car wash from being built, and to harass our business..."

"I do believe that, as I stated in the town meeting, they [Elder and O'Neil] are using their positions on the town board to harass business in the town."

O'Neil said in a statement issued Dec. 27 that he believes Brennan "fully intends this hearing to smear our good names through hearsay and innuendo for purely political reasons."

He contends, as does Elder, that the bad feelings between Brennan, O'Neil and Elder began when Elder defeated Brennan in the 2003 town election. Brennan was a town commissioner before serving as chair of the Ethics Commission.

Brennan has said emphatically that their allegations of political motivation are not true, and that he is trying to conduct the investigation fairly.

The Ethics Commission has been conducting closed interviews with the complainants and witnesses. Brennan announced in December that he hoped to have a report to the town commissioners about how they would proceed this month.

Brennan has said the town's ethics code does not give the board the ability to require testimony or issue subpoenas as it merely functions as an advisory body to the town.

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