I was dismayed when a small group turned out last Tuesday night to support the candidacy of long-term resident, Cherilyn Widell, to what we thought was an open position on the Historic District Commission (HDC) due to the ending of a three-year term for one of the seven commissioner seats.
Ms. Widell has impeccable credentials to serve on the HDC including once serving as the highest-ranking historic officer in the state of California – an appointment made by then governor Pete Wilson. She even received the Calvert Prize, which is the highest award for Historic Preservation in Maryland. I thought her 45 years of historic preservation activities would make her a shoe-in for the position on our HDC.
I was wrong. It turns out that Chestertown has a little-known and unwritten policy that allows anyone serving on a committee, commission, etc. to ask for reappointment and that will be granted regardless of the expertise of the incumbent or anyone else seeking appointment to that position. In the case of the HDC, each commissioner is appointed to a three-year term – or maybe it is a lifetime term? That is because at the end of the three-year term, if you ask for reappointment, you will automatically be granted a new term. You either have to decline the appointment, or die to relinquish it. Why have term limits at all? Just let people serve as long as they like, and don’t mislead the town by posting that the positions have term limits, because they don’t.
I don’t have to give you examples of why this isn’t the best approach to making the most of the existing talent in our town, nor for long-term town management. The purpose of term limits after all is to encourage greater citizen participation by ensuring regular turnover in key positions such as our HDC.
The Mayor and Town Council have done Chestertown a disservice by not appointing to the HDC someone whose credentials in historic preservation are beyond reproach. The current HDC does not currently meet the Certified Local Government (CLG) criteria mandated by the Federal government and the State of Maryland. They have not complied with this since Ed Minch passed away in 2021 and have not filed the required paperwork since 2020. Having CLG certification allows the town to receive grants that are reserved only for CLG towns – grants that conserve our tax dollars. We risk losing that ability with the continued blind appointment of incumbents. The HDC could have used Ms. Widell’s expertise to address this, and at the same time, our town would reap the benefits from her 45 years of experience in historic preservation.
Will this be the same approach to other positions across Chestertown? I’m afraid it looks that way. If this doesn’t seem right to you, please write to the Mayor and Town Council and let them know that you believe that committee term limits ensure new ideas and new perspectives are infused into the decision-making process while at the same time help avoid the perpetual concentration of power within a small group of people.
The best path forward for Chestertown involves using the extensive talent, commitment, and skills available to support all of our committees and commissions and leave the term limits in place to help support this.