Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Thurmont Commissioners Allow Referendum on Proposed Charter Changes

Vic Bradshaw
Frederick News Post

In June, many townspeople were irate when the board of commissioners passed three charter amendments without accepting public comment.

Tuesday night, they applauded when they finally were heard.

Ten weeks after voting 3-1 to change the charter to restrict the powers of each board member, the commissioners unanimously accepted a petition to have the measures taken to referendum.

At Thurmont’s Oct. 27 election, voters will determine whether the changes are added to the charter.

Town officials said this is the only time they know of that a referendum petition has been submitted.

One amendment said that only the board can fire or suspend town department heads, while another stated that it alone could fire the town attorney. The third required board and town attorney approval before a town employee may be investigated.

Frank Kurtz was among those bothered by the handling of the amendments, and he did something about it. He was very active in the petition drive, saying he personally collected more than 200 of the 757 signatures.

At meetings since the petition was submitted, a number of people said the petition should be verified and no one claimed it should be rejected. Though he thought public opinion would convince the board to accept it, Mr. Kurtz said he was relieved when the petition vote was cast.

"I feel glad for the people," said Mr. Kurtz, who plans to seek a board seat in the October election. "They asked to be heard, and now they can be heard."

The board’s decision included specifics about how the issues will appear on the ballot. Each will be voted on individually.

The petition saga began when the board introduced and passed the amendments at its June 17 meeting. The action was taken days after Mayor Martin Burns received a letter of advice from an assistant attorney general who serves the state legislature. It said that the attorney thought the mayor had the power to fire department heads.

Commissioners Wayne Hooper, Eddie Hobbs and Kenneth Oland voted to pass the amendments. Their position was that the alterations only clarified positions established in the charter and said they took the action hastily because of fears that Mr. Burns and/or Commissioner Ron Terpko would violate those rules.

Mr. Terpko voted against the amendments, and Mr. Burns lobbied for their defeat. Their position was that the mayor had the power to fire department heads and that any board member could investigate a town employee. Once the amendments were passed, Maryland law provided 40 days for people to get 20 percent of the town’s registered voters to sign a petition to take the amendments to a referendum vote. The petition submitted on July 25, two days before the deadline, contained about 19 percent more signatures than needed.

Though they accepted the petition, the three commissioners who voted for the amendments still defend the stance they took in June. They said Wednesday that they were simply clarifying what had long been understood to be town law, not making wholesale changes.

Mr. Hooper said town employees were asking why Mr. Burns was "in such a rush to get the power to fire" department heads. The mayor said he didn’t intend to fire anyone, but three board colleagues didn’t trust him. Because the board wasn’t meeting for more than a month, they pushed the legislation through.

All three said that, if they could do the process over again, they’d allow public input, and Mr. Hooper said he would have liked to have "gotten the word (about the amendments) out sooner." He and Mr. Hobbs said passing the matter through the town’s charter review committee would’ve been preferable. But Mr. Oland said the trio felt they faced time constraints to pass the legislation as quickly as possible, which is why they introduced and passed the resolution in the same meeting.

Mr. Hooper said he has no problem with Thurmont voters deciding the amendments’ fate.

"I think," he said, "that the voter is going to realize these things have to be written down before some people realize you don’t have the power to do what you want to do."

Mr. Burns said Wednesday that the petition decision justifies the position he took when the amendments were passed.

"I don’t know how anybody can’t say, in a small municipality like we have, that any change to the charter shouldn’t have public comment" before a vote, he said. "Had they waited three weeks, it would’ve been a completely different story. It would’ve been fair, it would’ve been right, and it would’ve been proper."

Mr. Terpko couldn’t be reached for comment.

Read Other Articles on Thurmont