Call them community rabble rousers or gadflies. Some might call them troublemakers. In most cases, they are citizens extraordinaire.
They typically are singularly focused on stopping something that strikes them as patently unfair or poorly thought-out, or just plain ill-advised. Public officials and those in authority find these people pesty and obnoxious.
A vibrant community cannot survive without them. They are dogged. They often are right. And they hold people accountable, uncomfortably so. They do their homework. They cannot be dismissed—nor should they be.
Dan Watson is one such person. Until he involved himself five years ago in the minutiae of the comprehensive plan, few people (including this writer) paid much attention to the Talbot County Council. He regularly attended meetings. He was determined to flush out what he considered the pro-business attitude of the county council.
He established the Bipartisan Coalition for the New Council Leadership. This group tried to unseat Jennifer Williams and succeeded. Watson was the lightning rod. He drew widespread support and equally damning antipathy. He stepped on toes; he cared little about personal popularity.
As Spy readers know, he has led the campaign to oppose the development of 2,500 homes in the proposed community of Lakeside in Trappe. He has questioned the approval process and the validity of information provided by developer concerning sewage disposal and potential pollution of tributaries leading to the Choptank River.
Watson’s concerns are justifiable. The environmental impact of a huge residential community of 2,500 homes is incalculable.
He has been relentless. His due diligence has been thorough and verifiable. He has amassed community support. He appeared before the county council last week. He pressed his case, perhaps too lengthily. He ruffled some feathers.
He stood up for the future of a rural county and an exceedingly small town threatened by a project of overwhelming size.
The mix of Dan Watson, land use, sewage capacity and the controversy over the Confederate Talbot Boys Monument have awakened this previously soporific community. Not too long ago, only the possibility of lifting the tax cap stimulated lively discussion and understandable dismay when the status quo was the result.
Richard Potter, president of the Talbot County chapter of the NAACP, picked up the gauntlet to push for the removal of the offensive monument. His arguments embodied passion and hurt about a distasteful monument that exemplified racism and the vestiges of slavery.
Potter has led with strength of conviction and undeniable justice. He too refused to yield to the county council’s intransigence. He was effective and credible. He too cared little about popularity. His last resort was a lawsuit after being denied a chance to appear before the county council.
Being satisfied with exclusion no longer was an option for Potter and hundreds of like-minded citizens. The Confederate monument in front of the Talbot County Courthouse, the only one of its type on public land in Maryland, is a disgraceful embarrassment.
Citizens like Dan Watson and Richard Potter, leading the charge against errant policies, have given life and zest to the public square in an otherwise quiet county.
The Talbot County Council no longer sits on a figurative island protected by its resistance to change and reasoned arguments. It must be accountable.
I also hear that Margie Elsberg in Kent County stepped up to help save the Chestertown hospital over several years. While she would be the first to say that many others helped in this effort, it was due to her persistence and convictions that led the State of Maryland to eventually reclassify this important health facility as a “rural” hospital, allowing it to remain a full-service facility.
I applaud Watson, Potter, Elsberg, and unseen others willing to buck indifference and reverse untenable positions taken by the majority of the council. I commend Councilperson Pete Lesher for his lonely, common-sense position on the council.
Talbot County residents are now engaged participants in local democracy. Their voices, greater in number than ever before, are being heard. They are willing to immerse themselves in the trenches of disputable issues and accept little else but change, albeit incremental.
All to the good. Talbot County benefits.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.