Editorial: Chestertown’s FUBAR Moment

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It is a particularly painful moment when an editorial writer must reach back to an old World War II epitaph to adequately describe the calamity associated with the Washington College/Chestertown Task Force.

The Spy will leave it up to Wikipedia to help our readers understand the precise definition of the military acronym, FUBAR, but indeed this is the only accurate description of how Chestertown’s elected leadership, administrative management, and a local newspaper shot themselves in the collective foot last week.

The facts are simple enough. The town and the college recruited eight of Chestertown and WC’s best and brightest to help “fix” Chestertown’s economic woes with the necessary assurance they could conduct their work in private.

This dream team included a highly regarded former Maryland Stadium Authority chair, a former high ranking Pentagon official, and one of the county’s most respected historic buildings and land conservationists. Add to the list the locally revered names of Athey, Massoni, and Kuiper, and you begin to realize how successful and thoughtful the council and the college had been in balancing the composition of the task force.

Now, after a year’s work, which included dozens of meetings with over 150 different people from in or near Chestertown, all seven remaining members resigned last week* after being served a FOIA request by the Kent County News, and at the same time were told by Town Manager Bill Ingersoll and the town attorney that they should seek their own legal counsel just days before their final report was to be presented at the Jan. 27 council meeting.

Say what? How could this possibly have happened?

The simple part of this puzzle is understanding the motives of the task force members. Any citizen volunteering time and expertise to a economic development study, with the complete and full assurance of their confidentiality by the local government, and then suddenly be subjected to a hostile FOIA request, left only one rational option, resign with an appropriate Bronx cheer.

This is what the KNC asked for in their FOIA letter:

1. From Councilwoman Linda Kuiper, member of the “task force.”:

Waterfront Task Force “draft report” and drawings of “waterfront concepts.” All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Margo Bailey Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to John Moag Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

2. From Mayor Margo Bailey:

Waterfront Task Force “draft report” and drawings of “waterfront concepts.” All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to any task force member Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to John Moag Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014. All emails/memos between Margo Bailey and Mitchell Reiss, over the same period.

3. From Mayor Chris Cerino/Planning Commission Chairman Chris Cerino”

Waterfront Task Force “draft report” and drawings of “waterfront concepts.”All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to any task force member Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to John Moag Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

4. From John Moag, Chairman of the “task force.”

Waterfront Task Force “draft report” and drawings of “waterfront concepts.”

5.  All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Al Massoni Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

6. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Matt Tobriner Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

7. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Rebecca Flora Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

8. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Linda Kuiper Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

9. All emails/memos addressed, cc’d or bcc’d to Mitchell Reiss Oct. 1 to Jan. 6, 2014.

No sane person could respond to this kind of witch hunt request and not decide they had much better ways to spend their free time.

The piece of this puzzle that is more hard to understand is why the town’s leadership, both elective and administrative, allowed this disaster to unfold.

Why, for example, did the mayor and council, after agreeing to allow the task force to deliberate and consider options in private for twelve months, not protect or forewarn the volunteers of potential legal and other liabilities as a direct result of council’s May vote to re-define the obligations of the town’s volunteer-led committees?  How could they allow their own volunteers to be exposed to this kind of disclosure requirement?  And why did the town manager and town attorney, Stuart Barroll, recommend to the volunteers that they obtain their own legal counsel to deal with the FOIA request?

Even more troubling is understanding the motivation of the Kent County News. Why did a local newspaper make the careless choice to intentionally endanger Chestertown’s long term economic future by dropping this bomb only one week before the task force was to present their report to the public?

One can only guess why institutions and people shoot themselves in the foot. But this is truly Chestertown’s FUBAR moment.

The test now is to see how Chestertown’s new mayor and other town leaders can possibly resurrect the task force and its important work. The community will find out at the next council meeting on Monday night.

But perhaps it is not too late to have another kind of FUBAR moment, which is Fixed Up Beyond All Recognition.

* Rebecca Flora, a town-appointed task force member, resigned in December on professional grounds after the task force began the process of requesting public funds from the town council for conceptual drawings. 

Letters to Editor

  1. Gren Whitman says:

    Editor,

    You’re criticizing the Kent County News for doing what the Spy didn’t? Maryland’s attorney general sums up the Open Meetings Act this way: “The act generally requires state and local public bodies to hold their meetings in public, give the public adequate notice of those meetings, and allow the public to inspect meetings minutes and certain other records.”

    Because the Waterfront Task Force was a public body as defined by the OMA,it was subject to a complaint if it failed to comply with the open meetings law, but that’s not the News’ fault.
    “Witch hunt”? “Careless choice”? “Hostile FOIA request”? “Intentionally endanger”? Hardly! For doing their job, Craig O’Donnell and the News should be thanked, not pilloried.

    • Stephan Sonn says:

      Editor:

      Small town politics, big time problems.

      There once was a time when I would have agreed totally with Mr. Whitman. And I admire Craig from past association when another editor was at KCN. But I am no longer a purist. Before the mayoral election. I warned about a city hall cadre with hand picked alliances and participants, that was dangerous game plan. But I never expected this. An alliance between the college in town improvement is an oxymoron given the common level of sophistication. It is just not there by the nature of the cultures. There needed to be a vehicle to lead the way and there came to be one. It failed.

      The part of this that should have been formally enacted was accountability. Somehow the waterfront group acted like they were covered and the town danced around the maypole with them for almost a year until a highly ambitious newspaper editor and very able reporter spoiled it. If the waterfront panel was a lawless operating mechanism, it was certainly was certainly a benevolent one too. The town and its designated agents has to take some blame for the problem. Care was not taken to protect all concerned from the substance and appearance of rogue governing.

      Back to my point about purism. Another editor would not sanction storyline exacerbation. Kevin Hemstock would have had lunch with the right people and there would have been no need to get this formal. Information would have been supplied and mechanisms instituted to assure accountability, not possible law breaking. Here the line between sensationalism and purism is blurred but either reeks for lack of sustained communication.

      Recently I have been commenting more in the Esquire magazine political forum that is over populated with purist civil libertarians on the Left; an uncompromising purist paradise. One thing I learned is that if the purists of right and left have their way, not only would there be no enterprise but no country as well. And that is a scary proposition nationally at the moment.

      This waterfront thing should have been talked through but that required character, maturity and sophisticationwas not in place, at key turning points vital to this town.

      Stephan Alan Sonn

  2. Alex Smolens says:

    Editor,

    The open meetings law has no teeth. Even if (and it’s a big if) they violated the law, all they have to do is admit it at the next meeting, and go on their merry way. Retaining counsel was absolutely silly. Not to mention complying is as simple as a 2 second search in Outlook, Mac Mail, etc, and pushing the forward button.

    My question is, why did the KCN feel this was required? What source alluded to such nefarious deeds that they couldn’t simply wait for the report? Had they been given something concrete, as a news outlet, they would have probably run with it

  3. John Vail says:

    Editor,

    Hold on a minute.Your choice of terms to describe the fiasco involving the collapse of the Chestertown Task Force may have been spot-on, but I fail to comprehend your inclusion of the Kent County News in the long list of those at fault.

    If the KCN needs justification, surely it is found in the State Open Meeting Compliance Board’s January 13 decision which found that the Task Force, with 4 members appointed by the Mayor of Chestertown, was a public body and therefore subject to the Open Meetings Act’s notice and record-keeping requirements. Holding the KCN responsible for this unfortunate outcome is like blaming your doctor for an unfavorable diagnosis.

    Let’s hold responsible the people who chartered the task force with assurances that it could conduct its business in secret–the Mayor of Chestertown and the President of Washington College. In truth, it’s probably their lawyers who should shoulder the blame–for giving bad advice.

    Two things stand out in considering this debacle. First, in this age of open government, who could seriously believe or argue that a group performing work on behalf of the public could conduct its work in secret? This isn’t the intricacies national defense, after all. If the Town Council is required to hold open meetings, then it seems pretty obvious that a subordinate task force must do the same.

    Second, where have the political and educational leaders been for the last 10 years that they don’t know the KCN’s commitment to open meetings? Did they think the KCN would ignore its chosen mission in this case? Did they hope that it would? Either way, it demonstrates a dramatic shortage of political judgment.

    So, if you must, lay blame for this donnybrook, but don’t misplace it.

    John Vail
    Worton

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