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 Thurmont Faces Refilling of
Horse Watering Lawsuit

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post

(9/26/03) Two Thurmont residents have refiled a lawsuit against the town, its board of commissioners and Mayor Martin Burns for denying them water for their horses.

On Monday, Daniel Mahone filed the amended suit in Frederick County Circuit Court on behalf of Christa Rhen and Bill Sullivan. The attorney submitted a second amended complaint to the court on Wednesday.

That complaint listed four counts against the defendants. It requested at least $100,000, plus interest and costs, and asked that a water ordinance passed by the board be declared invalid.

Mr. Burns was sued in his official capacity as mayor, meaning he has immunity unless it's proven that he made the statements in question with malice.

The plaintiffs claimed that Mr. Burns maliciously defamed them and placed them "in a false light." They requested at least $50,000 for defamation and at least $50,000 for being cast in a false light.

The suit also requested a judgment voiding the water ordinance passed by the board on July 23, 2002. It claimed the legislation violated the town's charter, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, a gubernatorial executive order regarding the drought, and the U.S. Constitution.

The fourth count alleged that the town breached an agreement to provide water for the horses and requested that they be forced to honor the agreement.

The action stems from events that occurred during the drought in July 2002. Ms. Rhen and Mr. Sullivan claimed Gary Dingle, Thurmont's water superintendent, said they could haul 150 gallons of water for their horses outside the town limits daily, but later rescinded that offer.

When they attended the July 16 town meeting to clarify the matter, the plaintiffs claimed Mr., Burns falsely accused them of breaking town law and the board "ridiculed" them. Ms. Rhen and Mr. Sullivan said they were further maligned by Mr. Burns at a press conference on July 18.

The suit alleged that the mayor's statements "were a political act undertaken for his own benefit and self-aggrandizement" and were meant to "chill" the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.

In August, Judge Julie Stevenson Solt threw out the first lawsuit filed by Ms. Rhen and Mr. Sullivan. The judge prohibited the plaintiffs from refiling the suit against Mr. Burns personally, but she gave them 30 days to enter an amended complaint against the town, the board, and the mayor in his official capacity.

That original deadline expired Friday, but with the courthouse closed because of Hurricane Isabel, the plaintiffs had until Monday to file. Mr. Mahone said the original suit disappeared from his computer files, so he wrote a complaint Monday to meet the deadline and filed the amended version Wednesday.

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