Conflict gets heated between Mayor and Hurlock citizens

Hurlock, Maryland
HURLOCK — The Aug. 10 Hurlock Town Council meeting was more like “Throwback Thursday” than Manic Monday. After confirming former Police Chief Les Hutton’s resignation, Mayor Joyce Spratt swore in Capt. Michael Henry as the new chief of police and Lt. Jeff Biskach as his deputy. The audience, filled with relatives of both men, was jubilant. It was a moment of camaraderie. But, only a moment.

After conducting normal council business, Mayor Spratt asked for council members’ comments. Councilman Charles Cephas referred to the prior meeting where he and town officials defended their decision not to fill the council seat vacated in April by former Councilman Parker Durham, despite what appeared to be a clear mandate in the charter.

Rev. Cephas felt “viciously attacked at the last council meeting” and wanted to clarify his position citing the Maryland Constitution as his defense. He said, “It has to do with the authority given to the council to ‘do whatever they see fit to carry out their business,’ including amending the charter.”

The Constitution reads, “Sec. 3. Any such municipal corporation … shall have the power and authority, (a) to amend or repeal an existing charter or local laws relating to the incorporation, organization, government, or affairs of said municipal corporation heretofore enacted by the General Assembly of Maryland, and (b) to adopt a new charter, and to amend or repeal any charter adopted under the provisions of this Article.

The argument that the action to defer filling the seat until the November election was illegal came from members of the Hurlock Citizens group who said the council could not act unilaterally to change sections of the charter which states the seat “shall” be filled within a designated time period. That argument could also be supported by the state constitution: Sec. 4. The adoption of a new charter, the amendment of any charter or local laws, or the repeal of any part of a charter or local laws shall be proposed either by a resolution of the legislative body … or by a petition containing the signatures of at least 5 percent of the registered voters of a municipal corporation and filed with the legislative body of said municipal corporation.

Rev. Cephas said he was “crucified” for his stance in a local newspaper. “I never once said that the town was not in violation. I only said the council has the right to abolish the charter or change it.” He said it is “vague,” and can be wrongly interpreted.

In public comments, Citizens’ Group leader Frank Bittner said he asked the town lawyer, Robert Merriken, what charter Section 306 means, no matter how “any of you choose to read it.” Mr. Bittner said it only refers to how the council conducts meetings. “You cannot change it without public meetings and advertising. You can’t do it in a back room and not tell us. I was expecting from you, Mr. Town Lawyer, an answer in June. But you weren’t here and you were quiet at the last meeting. I can only assume that perhaps on April 13 if the council had then done what the charter demanded and started the process (of replacement) we would not have had this discussion.”

Mr. Bittner said that before her election Ms. Spratt complained that the charter was a mess and one of her first jobs would be to get it straightened out. He said she started the codification process and spent money, somewhere between $7-9,000, but the project stopped.

“We need to get the codification done. We all need to play by the same rules,” Mr. Bittner said. He noted that Lynn Vinson, an applicant for the vacant seat, received an old copy that does not contain the most recent amendment with a timeline and council responsibilities for filling a vacant seat. The heat moved up a notch as the conversation turned personal.

Mayor Spratt snapped back, “Every time you come it’s a different song you sing. You’ve got a group that meets every month at the Pizza Palace. Tell me one thing that your group has done for the town since you formed that group. One positive thing that you’ve done.”

Mr. Bittner responded, “We’ve kept the town informed, mayor.” The mayor said, “You’ve kept a little group of people informed of what you want them informed of. If you followed us just one day you would not believe what we go through.”

“Is this an invitation?” asked Mr. Bittner.

Ms. Spratt said, “No. You’ve been mad at me since the first day I didn’t let you put a new phone system in.”

Before things went further downhill, Councilman Cephas intervened and asked Mr. Merriken how a citizen could get a copy of the updated charter.

Mr. Merriken explained that he had the old charter from 1976 with all the amendments since that time. “When anyone asked for it they got the whole package. The updated charter is not on the website.”

During a discussion with Messrs. Merriken and Bittner, and Mayor Spratt, about which version was sent, Ms. Vinson felt there were “other things that are not included.” She eventually found a website containing all the amendments and resolutions. She defended the Citizens group noting “All we’re trying to do is have checks and balances like state and federal governments so we all move in the same direction.”

Just when the decibel level lowered, resident Shannon Anderson raised an issue that turned it up in an unexpected direction. A Prospect area homeowner, she explained her frustration with town officials in trying to solve a major problem. She said she has spoken to Councilman Earl Murphy and former Chief Les Hutton about “drug deals going down in broad daylight.” Despite giving license numbers and other pertinent information to the police “nothing’s being done.”

Police Chief Henry responded, “We are out there and we do ride through there.” The Hurlock Police Department cooperates with the Sheriff’s Department and a state Drug Task Force and Chief Henry felt he did not know what else to say.

Councilman Murphy had plenty to say. He said that after hours telephone calls with Ms. Anderson’s husband he arranged a meeting with Chief Hutton to address the concerns. “So I’ve tried to fix some of the issues.” He said the pictures Ms. Anderson had sent to him were forwarded to people who could help.

Upset and frustrated by what she perceived as a lack of concern, Ms. Anderson said, “This goes beyond basketball courts and memorial parks. My kids cannot go outside without being bullied … I can take pictures until I’m blue in the face but nothing changes.”

Councilman Murphy was offended by the implication that he had “done nothing.” He recounted an evening when he spent three hours sitting in his truck in the area of alleged drug deals with his blinkers on so those in the neighborhood could see him “as a council member.”

Councilman Cephas was “upset” that Mr. Murphy did not contact him about the issue because “that’s my district.” As councilman at large, Murphy defended his actions saying he represents the whole town.

Chief Henry offered to set up a time to meet with Ms. Anderson, review her materials, and work to solve the problem for her.

Councilman Cephas said, “I think you should be able to talk to the chief. You shouldn’t have to cry or be upset and your kids shouldn’t have to be bullied by anyone.”

Asked by Councilman Murphy if she has always been able to reach him or his wife Ms. Anderson said “yes.” At that point Mr. Murphy’s wife Michelle could no longer contain herself. Speaking to Councilman Cephas, she said, “There is no reason that Councilman Murphy has to answer to you before he speaks to a constituent in that district. He is a councilman at large and represents every district. You might want to ask your constituents why they have been unable to get in touch with you when they do contact Councilman Murphy.”

“Your husband doesn’t have to consult with me,” Councilman Cephas said. “It’s a question of respect, which he doesn’t seem to have.”

Ms. Murphy continued, “We get calls from all the districts. Guess who’s been responding to her (Ms. Anderson) concerns. I have been with my husband when he has tried to call you and you do not return the messages. He tries to get you involved in this … The whole town voted him in. If a citizen comes to any councilman it is their concern.”

With disagreements and discord still bubbling at the surface, the meeting was adjourned.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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