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Dismissal of town staffer requested

Chris Patterson

(9/2/04) At Thurmont's weekly town meeting Tuesday, resident John Ashbury called for a town staff member's dismissal after that staff member allegedly opened a letter Ashbury submitted to the town's Ethics Commission marked "personal and confidential" last week.

The letter requested a review of a town commissioner's overdue utility bills.

Ashbury said he submitted the letter in a sealed envelope at the town hall on Aug. 26 and was told a "higher-ranking staff member" would pass the letter on to the Ethics Commission.

"When so informed, I said loud enough for all in the room to hear, that that other higher-ranking staff member was not to open that envelope..." he told the board.

On Friday afternoon Ashbury was contacted by town attorney N. Lynn Board, of Board and Borden of Frederick, who told him the confidential letter had been opened and copied to all town commissioners, as well as to Ethics Commission member John Ford.

Ashbury spoke with strong words but a controlled demeanor at the meeting and did not name the "higher-ranking staff member" of whom he was speaking.

"I am appalled that a letter to the Ethics Commission would be opened and distributed to other town officials. There can be no excuse for anyone to open and read any correspondence addressed to another in the matter of official business of the Town of Thurmont..." he said.

Mayor Martin Burns said the unnamed employee contacted him and told him what he had done. The employee was then instructed to retrieve all of the letters and put the original back in the envelope, he said.

Town officials told Ashbury that copies were collected, he said, but Ashbury said he wasn't satisfied.

"Unfortunately we have no way of knowing if all of the copies were retrieved and destroyed. We have only the word of the town employee who committed this grievous act that they were," he said to the board. "...I believe that this employee has breached the trust and integrity of this mayor and board. It will be difficult for me to ever again accept anything this employee tells me concerning the town as gospel."

Burns said Wednesday that the board has not yet discussed what, if anything, it will do about the employee because all of the board members are not in town. He said any corrective action would be done in private because it is a personnel matter.

The ethics inquiry Ashbury requested will have to wait until the commission has three members. Burns and the board must elect another member to the three-member commission after one member resigned last week.

Burns said he will consider who to appoint to the vacant seat on the Ethics Commission, but has "a little time" because John Ford, the unofficial leader of the commission, is out of town for "a couple of weeks."

Ashbury has previously told The Gazette that his request to the commission was regarding an ethics investigation into the matter of town Commissioner Wayne Hooper's overdue utility bills.

The town's attorney investigated Hooper's water, sewer and electric bills, which reached a combined total of about $3,000 before they were paid off in late June. Hooper's utilities were not turned off while other residents with lesser bills had their electricity turned off during that time.

According to a July 26 investigation report filed by town attorney N. Lynn Board, Hooper did not ask for favors, but did benefit from what was considered an administrative snafu.

Ashbury is asking for the town's Ethics Commission to consider the issue because the town signs the attorney's paycheck. That presents a conflict of interest, he said in a recent interview.

The request was not a reflection on the town's attorney, whom he holds in high regard, he said.

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