The Chestertown Waterfront Task Force has disbanded. All seven volunteers resigned unanimously on Jan. 16 as a result of a Public Information Act request filed by the Kent County News.
In a letter to Mayor Chris Cerino announcing the resignations, Task Force Chair John Moag said he was never made aware that the “Task Force” designation established by the Chestertown Town Council created a “governing body” subject to Public Information Act Requests and Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.
“This fact was not communicated to us,” Moag wrote. “Had we known we were required to have preannounced open meetings, with public attendance, and published meeting minutes, we would in all likelihood have dissolved our effort, due to the impossibility of having candid dialogue and confidential discussions with those who had some knowledge of economic development.”
A recent ordinance that classified the rules of Commissions, Committees, Task Forces and Study Groups passed on May 20 (Resolution 02-2013), four months after the Task Force was formed — and two months after the Task Force held their first meeting. The Task Force received no communication of the new rules, Moag said.
“The guidelines for our public service were spelled out in a letter from former Mayor Margo Bailey and Washington College President Mitchell Reiss,” Moag wrote in his letter to Cerino on Friday.
Moag agreed with the right of the press to file Public Information Act requests to a “governing body” but said complying with KCN’s request will end up costing the town additional expenses in legal fees and also harm the ability of the town to enlist future volunteers for important projects.
“…This kind of public acrimony will have a very chilling impact on the willingness of volunteers to lend their time and experience for the betterment of the Town,” Moag wrote.
Moag said that Town Manager Bill Ingersoll and Town Attorney Stewart Barroll have recommended the Task Force seek its own legal counsel to deal with the request.
The Task Force was comprised of four appointees from the town and four from Washington College to plan a vision of a public-private partnership on the Chester River waterfront, where WC and the town are the two largest property owners.
The Chestertown Council approved the Task Force on Jan. 22, 2013 after heated debate over whether the meetings should be open to the public — and whether the $200,000 gift the college paid the town for the Sgt. John H. Newnam Armory would be under the control of the Task Force, as requested by Washington College President Mitchell Reiss.
The Task Force was approved with the stipulation that council members could observe the meetings.
The council voted more than once during the year to quarantine the $200,000 gift solely for the town’s Rails-Trails project, which drove a bitter wedge between then Mayor Margo Bailey and a majority of the council. The bitterness was so thick that Bailey, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll, and some town employees boycotted Councilman Jim Gatto’s annual Christmas party in protest of a vote at the Dec. 16 meeting that further protected the gift for any uses other than Rail-Trails.
A source close to the Task Force said the gift “became a distraction” and should have never been injected into conversation when the Task Force was created.
The Task Force drew growing public skepticism during the latter half of 2013 when a report due to the council was postponed on four separate occasions. The last postponement came in a letter to the council dated Dec. 2 when Moag said the Task Force needed additional time to meet with Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Subcabinet on Sustainability — in an attempt to find sources of funding for the project.
Moag told the Spy in a profile piece that ran on Jan. 14 that the Task Force “knew this was not going to be done in a couple months.”
He said the Task Force had interviewed roughly 150 people, “who spoke openly because it was private. We learned so much [and] we touched every element of the community.”
Speculation about the work of the Task Force hit an all time high in the week of Dec. 16 when one of the Task Force members, Rebecca Flora, made public statements before Town Council without the approval of the rest of the members. The members had agreed at their first meeting in March not to make public statements until the final report was presented to the council.
Flora’s comments came just two weeks after the town council had voted to fund $8,000 for the Task Force to purchase concept drawings and other visual aids to make their final presentation to the council. The Baltimore architect firm of Ayers Saint Gross had been designated to create the visual concepts.
“Because you did vote to invest in some design work we have moved from being a citizens advisory committee…to a committee that needs to have accountability to the public,” Flora said at the Dec. 16 meeting.
Flora resigned from the Task Force the day after her comments to the council.
Moag said the he and another Task Force member will end up personally paying for the work Ayers Saint Gross has performed to date.
Included in Maog’s letter to Cerino is the near-finished report of the Task Force.
In a brief phone call on Saturday, Cerino said the Task Force was a good idea to bring the town and the college together for the future of the town “but the execution was flawed.” He said future discussions about the waterfront would occur in a “more public” process.
Below is Moag’s letter to Cerino.