News Flash: In Court, Elkton Settles Suit by Admiting It Exceeded its Authority to Waive Major Utility Fees

Cecil County Circuit Court, July 13, 2010 – A case brought by two taxpayers seeking to stop the town from waiving $150,000 in major facilities fees for a developer building a senior citizen project on High Street went before Judge R. E. Beck this afternoon in the Circuit Court.   Before the Judge heard all the evidence, the town announced it would enter into an agreement that it did not have the authority to grant a transfer of fees in Dec. 2009 and that the action of the mayor and commissioners is annulled.  (Any transfer of fees will have to go back through the new process as outlined by ordinances the town has been busy passing in the past few weeks.)  Also, the attorney fees for the plainntiffs, Jim Nicholson and Bob Litzenberg, will be reimbursement by the municipality and they will not be subject to lawsuits on this matter from other parties.   

The legal wrangling started right off as two town attorneys, Norman Wilson and Jason Allyson, entered a second motion for dismissal. That’s an argument they’d first attempted in April, but a Judge disagreed.  The issues were null and void since Elkton passed recent ordinances addressing the points the plaintiffs taxpayers raised such as the non-conforming lot size,  parking lots as a prohibited use, and waiver of fees, they added this time.  Representing Nicholson and Litzenberg, Keith Baynes pointed out that the contested actions were taken long before the town modified its ordinances to permit the building of the senior citizen building.  They did have the authority and all the new regulations did was clarify that authority, Elkton’s representatives countered.  As they worked through the finer points on this, noting that the town several times enacted new ordinances to address regulatory gaps,  Judge Beck remarked that it seemed to him that whenever a mistake was found, the town just backed up and passed a new ordinance after the fact to cover the discrepancy.  That raised a legal question about whether “when you change the law to satisfy actions already taken by the board, is it retroactive?” the judge commented.  With that he ruled that there was plenty of evidence for the case to move forward.

Outside the courtroom, waiting to testify, were Commissioner Jablonski, Mayor Fisona, Town Administrator Lewis George, Planner Jean Minner and Building Official Craig Trostle.  Earlier in the proceedings they had been sequestered so that each would testify individually without hearing other parts of the case.  When the court took a brief break, the town’s political leadership, professional staff, and attorneys were seen huddled together outside, intensely talking things over.  Soon Norman Wilson reentered the courtroom and announced the town was ready to enter into an agreement to settle the case and admit that it exceeded its authority to waive major facility fees and permit the transfer of those fees from one party to another.

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Over the next few days, we’ll have much  more on this story, including an update on all the new ordinances the town has enacted.  Those include one to allow the town to waive fees, another changing zoning usages, and one to change the minimum lot size requirements.  In addition, we’ll have an editorial on this matter.

Also take note of the indepth coverage Cecil Times is providing this news story. 

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13 responses to “News Flash: In Court, Elkton Settles Suit by Admiting It Exceeded its Authority to Waive Major Utility Fees

  1. Nice job, Mike! You beat me by a bit, but I do have a lot longer drive to get to my computer! LOL
    Thanks for all you do to inform the Elkton/county community on important issues.

  2. Thanks Cecil Times and also thanks for the informative political & other coverage you’re providing the county.

    With both of us covering this it reminded me of a time not too many years ago when an Elkton town meeting would often have 4 reporters covering the actions of the political leadership. That kept everyone sharp since if one didn’t cover some important asepct, the others were sure to get it. Too the politicians knew that their actions were going to be thoroughly aired for public viewing.

    But these days it’s a different situation and I’m always surprised when legacy media fails to cover these important news matters. For two citizens to take this on, have threats of suits being filed against them, and be at great risk financial, seems like important news to me, as the town all at once figured out it better enact new ordinances to cover the actions they’d just taken. As the judge said, it seems that they’d just go back, after-the-fact, and correct the laws to cover the actions they’d already taken.

    The town simply pulled on its unlimited treasury to fund two lawyers (or as many more as they thought they might want) while these two had to dig into their own pockets. to fight the issue.

  3. stephen foster

    Mike thanks for keeping us informed about the whats happening in town it’s nice to know we can always get the straight facts from you.
    On another subject I hear thru the grapevine that you have been removed from the town’s historical commitee what a loss that will be for the community.
    Also at the trial did you notice that the mayor had two Elkton police officers providing security

  4. Thanks Steve for your comments. The grapevine has it right. BTW, I too was surprised to see the Elkton police officers there, especially since there was a deputy who is normally detailed to the courtroom present and the cout bailiffs. Caught my attention right off and I wasn’t sure what that was about.

  5. I also ‘heard through the grapevine’ about your removal from the Historical Committee. In addition, I heard that Debbie Storke was removed. Any truth to that? What gives?

    • Scotty the grapevine is right on. We both were informed by the town today that our services were no longer needed for Elkton’s Historic District Review Commission. Interesting timing.

  6. Scotty, yes I was canned! I knew my time was limited after the election. I am sure the Mayor has another friend to take my place. He appointed one last week to the Housing Appeals Board. What a shame to take Mike off the HARC committee. The Mayor is just being vindictive but he has a lot of campaign promises to fullfill.

  7. Mike,
    So sorry to hear the Elkton ‘powers that be’ have made yet another mistake to make them look foolish to the rest of the world. You ARE “Mr. History” in Cecil County.

    • Thanks Cecil Times. The timing of the note about the fact that our services wouldn’t be needed any longer was interesting, coming as it did right after the trial. One of the other original memers of the Historic District Commissioner, Debbie Storke, also received the same notice. Her husband ran against Mayor Fisona in the May election.

  8. What’s wrong with them officials. LIke that Judge said they want to go back and change laws to cover stuff that was not legal when they said it was allrgight to do and approved it. Don’t know nothing about lawering, but know that’s not right. What’s wrong with Joe Fisona and them others.

    • Just Watching: You’re correct, the judge was very clear on that point. Toward, the end he sort of joked, “They really, really wanted this done, didn’t they.” But in a more serious tone he often noted how that once members of the public would point out where they weren’t following their oridnances, they’d go back well after the fact and change that law.

      What mystifies me is whey they didn’t get their ordinances and laws in law and then take these actions. Elkton need economic development and this senior housing project could be a good idea, but you sure couldn’t tell it from the way the mayor and commissoners handled the project. From the moment they started, they weren’t consulting with professional staff ahead of time to see what really needed to be done and they were just going to go full ahead even when people pointed out that their actions were outside the town’s authority. Why not reverse it and do it the right way. They have an excellent staff and while the political leadership didn’t know what needed to be done, the professional staff could’ve guided them if they listened to them.

      There was testimony from the plaintiff’s lawyer that they have memos from the town administration advising the politicans that these matters were illegal. We think we’ll start doing a Freedom of Information Act report and see what we can dig up on that for readers.

  9. I’ve been reading the Whig everyday looking to see their take on this story. How come I haven’t seen important news like this in that paper.

  10. Fred: We can’t explalin why the Whig didnt cover this. Beyond being important political news in a small town beat, it’s good for newspaper sales too.

    Our readership numbers soared to new levels over the past week, but I’m sure the publishers and execs, the ones making the decisions, are fully aware o f what readers want.

    Check back often we just try to report the news in a straight-forward manner as the politicans make it. Too we perioidically provide an opinion piece, but we’ll label those as such.

    There’s so much news in the public interest in Elkton meetings, it sure would be good to have some help covering it. That’s why we were glad to see Cecil County’s source for political news, the Cecil Times, show up to help cover the trail a week ago.

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