Elkton Commissioners Still Pondering Questions About Whether They Have Authority to Waive Fees

Elkton Town Meeting, Dec., 15, 2010 — Over a year ago trouble started for Elkton officials as they rushed into a precedent setting agreement that involved waiving major utility hook-up fees, which alllowed the bank receiving the waiver to transfer the financial credit to another party.  It was a controversial decision from the moment it took place and legal wrangling over the rushed decision continued for months.  Eventually two taxpayers hauled the town into court, and with the trial underway the municipality admitted it exceeded its authority

At the December 15th meeting, the commissioners were once again considering another, more straight-forward request for a waiver from the local fire company, one that wasn’t associated with the transfer of money between independent parties and clearly involved public interest, the town’s fire department.  When they finally got around to discussing the request, they’d just wrapped up one closed meeting that caused the public to disperse as they were shut out of the meeting.  But  moments after returning Commissioners Jablonski asked, “Can we close the meeting a second time?” “Sure you can do anything you want,” the town administrator Lewis George replied.  However he also advised that that the decision should be made in public.    As they were mulling over whether to go back behind closed doors to discuss this public matter, the town attorney added, go ahead and discuss it.  “There’s no one here anyway.”  Earlier there had been a number of people in the audience, but they’d left after the commissioners adjourned originally, shutting the public out from the discussion.  Of course, the video-camera was running so there was a record of the discussion.

Once they sorted through where to discuss the request, the next thing they examined was whether they had to authority to waive utility hook-up fees, considering the legal troubles they’d had over the past year.  The previous reason the town had to settle for waiving fees was much more complicated, involving precedent setting actions that allowed the transfer of financial interests between parties, something that had never been done before.  At that time, they rushed into that decision despite warnings from the professional staff , some members of the board, and the public.  “I think we should have the right to make these decisions,” Commissioner Jablonski said.  “We need something that’s in writing that gives us the right.  We need something because we get questions like this and it puts us in a bind, when schools, the fire companies and others want the waivers.”

Lewis George, the town administrator, reminded the elected decision-makers that beyond the legal issues the town needed the fees because it has “a lot of debt.”  Waiving these fees put pressure on everybody else, including the people right here” as the money has to come from somewhere, he stated. 

Eventually they agreed to waive building permit assessments amounting to $10,288 and receive payment for the major utility fund amount to $60,000 in five installments.

This is the video of that portion  of the Dec. 15th meeting.

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6 responses to “Elkton Commissioners Still Pondering Questions About Whether They Have Authority to Waive Fees

  1. Someone needs to explain to the Mayor what ” recuse ” means. He conducted the whole discussion, gave his opinion and asked for the vote. Is that grounds for a lawsuit? Lawsuits seemed to be the main concern.

  2. Debbie:

    We were really disappointed to see what transpired at this session after the public had departed. Our plea for all officials is to put lots of light on their activities and conduct them in a welcoming, public view.

    To hear Mayor Fisona and Commissioner Jablonski checking to see if it was legal to go back into a second closed session that evening, one that had already cleared the room of anyone from the public, was disappointing. There was nothing they were going to discuss, that should have been discussed in private, but then the town attorney says go ahead and discuss, there’s no one here anyway. This was a matter that Maryland law, in our opinion, required to be discussed before the public. Why try rush behind closed doors and shut the public out?

    At least the video was running so the public has a record, but the last time the video caused some trouble for them at a workshop, the Mayor simply stopped recording those sessions. That might happen here.

    On your point about the mayor recussing himself, we took took note of that, as he continued to lead the discussion. If recussal were appropriate, he should have stepped aside entirely.

    Then there’s the matter of whether they have the legal authority. After they rushed into waiving fees in a much more complicated, precedent setting matter, as one commissioner, all the members of the professional staff, former mayors and other members of the public, urged them to slow down and check this out, they’re now worried about their legal authority. BTW, soon after they exceeded their legal authority initially, they passed ordinances that were designed to address the original errors they made, which didn’t have anything to do with simply waiving fees, but more related to waiving them for one party and then allowing that party to hand them over to an independent concern.

    The matter that caused them admit they exceeded their legal authority in court was entirely different than this. They were told that many times by the professional staff as they rushed into the earlier decision and as the judge said in reviwing the evidence, “they really wanted to do this, didn’t they?” as he indicated where he was heading in the courtroom.

    We don’t believe they had a legal concern over this request. The town administrator pointed out more practical concerns, not related to legal matters, which were valid.

  3. I agree with Debbie. I believe the Mayor should look up the definition of the word recuse and study it. I believe there have possibly been several situations/issues before the Town in which the Mayor should have recused himself.

    • Steve: I was just so diappointed to see that discussion. I think you & Debbie are both right when the mayor says he’s going to recuse himself. I’m whether a recusal is required in this case where he’s a volunteer, but since he thoughtit was, he should’nt be leading and guiding the conversation.

      But to hear them there talking about going shutting out the public to discuss this subject is disappointing. MD Law places strict restrictions on when they can do that and I don’t think this gets anywhere near meeting that test. In fact, it would’ve made an interesting test case for the MD review board to see who is right on that, if they’d gone back behind closed doors.

      What recommendation did they get, “don’t worry about it, there’s no one here watching anyway.” Our plea to the officials is err on the side of letting the public see the public business conducted, rather than trying to find ways to shut the public out of the discussion. It’s much better for the officials, the community and for the quality of decisions. They’ve seen what happens when they try to rush business and conduct as much of it as possible without listening to the public.

      The other point relates to whether they have the authority to waive fees. The reason the taxpayers hauled them into court was for exceeding their authority in that other case. In that case, an really unusual action, they waived the fees for a bank, the owner of a property, permitting the bank to transfer those financial credits to another unconnected party and another property not connected to the one they were waiving fees. That’s why they lost the case because that was something they’d never done before, the ordinance didn’t allow such transfers without interest and staff was writing plenty of memos saying that they didn’t have the authority. In the case of the current request, it was straight-forward credit for the party owning the property and they were trying to give it to someone else. That’s one they’ve done with lots and lots of requests, until now.

      All in all very disappointing to see that entire recordation.

  4. Hey Mike, did you hear that you and the Chairman of the Board of Zoning Appeals have something in common? She also received her termination letter from the Mayor.

    • No I hadn’t heard about that Steve. I’ll start working on a story and get some quotes from the mayor and the administration. Thanks for the tip, Someone Noticed is working on the story now. The Mayor certainly is busy replacing lots of his appointments.

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