Commissioners Allow Referendum on Proposed Charter Changes
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
Town officials said this is the only
time they know of that a referendum petition has been
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
"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
Mr. Terpko couldn’t be reached for