SHA and Hurlock wrangle over 392 intersection

MD-hurlock meeting 3x-080315

Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
State Highway Administration engineer Donnie Drewer (standing) suggested options for a controversial intersection in Hurlock at the July 27 council meeting. Seated, from left: Council member Bonnie Franz, Mayor Joyce Spratt, council members Earl Murphy, Charles Cephas; Attorney Robert Merriken, Town Administrator John Avery.

HURLOCK — The two way stop at Rte. 392 and Main Street in Hurlock has been a bone of contention for many years. Described as an “accident waiting to happen,” this intersection was again a topic of discussion at the July 27 Town Council meeting. The Mayor and Council want a traffic light.

At the Feb. 10, 2014 meeting, Police Chief Les Hutton said there were 18 accidents at the site from 2011 to 2014. State Highway Administration (SHA) Engineer Donnie Drewer’s recommendation was a study to see if a roundabout, considered safer than traffic lights, could work there. A subsequent study showed a roundabout was not feasible.

Following the February 2014 meeting, SHA installed two flashing red lights on the 392 stop sign with advance warning signs prior to the intersection. Before a traffic light can be installed, Mr. Drewer said the department uses standardized guidelines in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Devices with nine ‘warrants’ as criteria. He explained that a warrant must be met before a signal is installed and at the July 28 meeting Mr. Drewer and Dallas Baker, SHA assistant engineer, reported the results of their study.

According to Mr. Baker, volume of traffic and number of accidents were reviewed but did not meet the warrants required for traffic signals. The engineers recommended a 4-way stop. A review in 6-12 months will measure results and re-evaluate volume. Knowing from previous comments that Police Chief Hutton does not favor a 4-way stop, Mayor Joyce Spratt said the chief will have to be consulted before a final decision is made.

Mr. Drewer noted, “If we put a signal up where everybody wants one believe me we’d be stopping everywhere.” To alert drivers, four red flashing lights, four stop signs, advance warnings, and paint on the road would be installed.

Former councilman Parker Durham resigned from his seat on April 13 and it remains vacant. The Council and Mayor decided that filling the seat would be ill advised since the seat is up for election in November.
During public comment, however, several citizens disagreed with that decision.

Lynn Vinson explained she submitted an application and a letter several weeks ago to fill Parker Durham’s seat. She asked for clarification of the procedures. “I haven’t received any notification, i.e. ‘yes, no, interview, no interview.’ I believe other people have applied as well.”

Mayor Spratt said, “We’ve gotten two letters. The consensus of the council was to wait until the November election “because there is nothing going on now. If we open it up and we have to advertise it, have applications in, do interviews, by then we would be into the voting period.” She added, “We’ve got four sitting council members now, not two or three,” which is enough to vote.

Ms. Spratt asked council members if she was correct. Council members agreed that she was.

Words matter. The discussion turned to the meaning of the word “shall.”

Ms. Vinson noted, “I thought that seat needed to be filled within a certain amount of time.” The town charter states in Sec. 307, “In the event of a vacancy on the Council for any reason, the council, by unanimous vote, shall appoint some person … to fill such vacancy for the remainder of the unexpired term.” She explained that in “old English, ‘shall’ meant it must be done.”

According to the Mayor, the deadline for applications for the November election is Oct. 1.

She explained that at-large Councilman Earl Murphy represents the whole town. The position was created in the event of a tied vote. “You do have representation through him,” Ms. Spratt said. “It is nothing against you, Lynn, that was just the consensus of opinion.”

Resident Matt Fahey explained “the charter says the position ‘shall’ be filled which means you have no choice in the matter.” Other sections cited by council members say nothing about “deviating from the town charter. If you’re going to pursue this are you going to put an amendment in the town charter that gives them the option because right now … you have to fill that seat.”

At that point Councilman Charles Cephas suggested seeking the town attorney’s opinion but the attorney, Robert Merriken, was not asked directly for guidance.

Councilman Cephas said the “charter is sometimes in gray areas,” and referenced Sec. 306 regarding Procedure of Council.” It states, “The Council shall determine its own rules and order of business” which the councilman interpreted as justifying the decision not to fill the seat.

Mr. Fahey disagreed, stating, “When it comes to filling the seat, there is no gray area.” He said nothing in the charter allows deviation from its ordinances so “technically you are in violation.”

Frank Bittner pointed out that Sec. 306 refers only to meeting procedures and keeping minutes. He explained, it says “you have the right to conduct business in a certain order.”

The section “says the council determines its own course of business,” pressed Councilman Cephas, “and has the right to amend the charter and abolish parts as they feel is necessary.”

Mr. Bittner said, “If the charter needs to be changed then we do it the right way with the citizens involved.”

To avoid “a running debate with citizens about the charter,” Councilman Cephas then proposed that the council consider opening the vacancy to candidates who want to apply. “I think to be fair that should happen.”

Mayor Spratt asked if Rev. Cephas meant opening up the position now. He responded,
“It seems like we have a storm rising and I want to keep some storms down. We should advertise it … and do the process thoroughly.”

The post could be advertised now but interviews would not begin until September, said Ms. Spratt. “We can do it. I don’t want to be in violation of anything.” Councilmen Cephas and Murphy recommended a vote on the issue be postponed until Councilman Jerry Rhue returns.

Mr. Bittner mentioned the charter’s requirement for filling a vacant seat within a pre-determined amount of time. He suggested the council meet in special session since the charter requires the seat to be filled within 90 days and the seat has been empty since April 13, over a 90-day limit. However, at the Feb. 27, 2012 meeting, the council approved the following charter amendment which passed unanimously. “If for any reason the council cannot reach a unanimous vote to fill a vacancy on the council within two consecutive regular meetings of the mayor and council then the council by majority vote shall appoint a person from the list of responsive applicants to fill the vacancy of the next regular meeting of the mayor and council.” The council meets twice monthly so two consecutive regular meetings suggests a shorter time period than 90 days; and, “responsive applicants” should have already been considered for appointment.

In a poignant note, Town Administrator John Avery recounted how his “wife fell five weeks ago and hit her head. She was in critical and intermediate care but is now in rehab. “It’s going to be a long road but she’s going in the right direction.” Choking back emotion, Mr. Avery said, “Thank you for the support. It means a lot.” He praised the Hurlock Volunteer Fire Company for its “quick response because I’m sure it saved her life.”

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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