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Thurmont condemns 2 houses

Jeremy Hauck
The Gazette

(12/14) Thurmont commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to condemn the houses of two of the seven families that successfully sued the town over sewage backups that occurred in 2003.

The town will seek to condemn the other five houses when it has the money to do so, Mayor Martin A. Burns said. Town officials would not say what repercussions the condemnation might have, nor did they announce what it will cost to condemn the houses.

Reading aloud two ordinances that targeted the homes of the Furrs and the Browns, Burns said the move is designed to prevent future judgments against the town.

There is no guarantee that the homes won’t flood with raw sewage again, as they did in 2003, he said.

‘‘This is news to me," Brian S. Jablon, attorney for the homeowners who sued the town, said Wednesday. ‘‘Very, very interesting."

He declined to comment further.

Burns said the town would hire someone to appraise the value of the homes, and the town would then offer to buy the homes at the appraised prices. If the owners turn the town’s offers down, Burns said, ‘‘then it goes to court."

The Furrs and the Browns — along with the Bishops, Lavignes and Patricks of Ironmaster Court, a cul-de-sac on the southern edge of town, and the Matweechas of Woodland Avenue and the Valentines of Sunset Lane — were awarded $3.4 million this year by a Frederick County jury.

A Circuit Court judge later lowered that amount to $2.55 million, but the town is appealing the judgment to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.

Discussion leads to mayor’s promises

An academic discussion on the town charter, initiated by Commissioner Robert E. Lookingbill Tuesday, quickly evolved into a spirited debate about the balance of power in Thurmont.

In the face of stiff criticism from Lookingbill, who admitted he hadn’t read the document until after his October election, and commissioners Glenn D. Muth and Ronald A. Terpko, Burns pledged to make town hall more transparent to the public and the town’s other elected officials.

Burns directed William H. Blakeslee, the town’s chief administrative officer, to fill the board’s agenda with presentations on the town’s billing practices for electricity, the new police station, Main Street Thurmont and what projects town staff has been working on.

The discussion started from a list of 31 line items that Lookingbill sought to challenge in the charter, which commissioners approved earlier this year. The board made it to the fourth item — the part of the charter that says that the offices of chief administrative officer and chief financial officer, currently occupied by Blakeslee and Rick May, ‘‘are accountable to the mayor."

There, Muth, who voted against the entire charter in February because of the item, and Lookingbill told Burns the language could mean that the sitting mayor could make town operations invisible to commissioners.

‘‘My opinion is the same as it was when it was adopted," Muth said.

‘‘What I see is a totalitarian government setup," Lookingbill said. ‘‘That’s what I see."

Burns challenged the commissioners to describe an instance ‘‘where there’s a need to change a charter we just adopted eight months ago."

‘‘[The charter] works," Burns said. ‘‘There’s nothing wrong with it."

In a compromise decision, commissioners agreed to go six months without revisiting the charter, and to then drop the matter completely, as long as they agree that Burns has provided them with timely updates on town business.

Police chief’s power not restricted

Commissioners agreed not to legislate street sign decisions made by the Thurmont police chief. In return, Chief Gregory L. Eyler promised to notify them of any changes he intends to make before he makes them, in the future. Terpko said commissioners need the information in order to be prepared for questions from residents.

‘‘You still have to talk to your constituents," Terpko said.

All four commissioners said they wanted to be notified of changes the police chief makes to traffic patterns in the town.

Eyler in October erected a ‘‘Do Not Enter" sign at the Frederick Road entrance to Howard Street. He considered the move for ‘‘at least a month," he said Tuesday, after receiving complaints from residents.

Eyler admitted he hadn’t notified commissioners of his October decision.

‘‘I wasn’t trying to hide anything," he said. ‘‘It won’t happen again."

At a previous meeting, Lookingbill questioned the move and suggested removing the chief’s power to make such changes without board approval from the town charter. But commissioners backed off from the measure when Burns assured them that the board is authorized to reverse traffic pattern changes.

‘‘If we thought his judgment was terrible, I believe we absolutely could," he said. Burns added that Eyler has made one other traffic pattern change in his two years in charge.

‘‘I don’t think that’s an abuse," he said.

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