Havre de Grace City Council members sent their sympathies to the people of Newtown, Conn., during Monday's meeting, and several said they want to see mental health and gun safety better addressed as a result of the shooting at an elementary school that killed 20 children and six adults last Friday.
Mayor Wayne Dougherty was emotional after a speech by Police Chief Teresa Walter on the shooting.
"I held and hugged my granddaughter that day, and [in] my years in law enforcement, Chief, our years of working the crisis unit, made no sense back then and it still makes no sense," Dougherty, a former law enforcement officer, said about the incident before adding that residents with potentially troubled relatives can take some action to keep such events from happening.
"We all know there are family secrets and those family secrets can involve a member of that family that everyone is very concerned about but no one says anything and everything will be OK," he said. Adam Lanza, the Connecticut shooter, who also killed himself and his mother, has been described in media reports as a loner who was shy and uncomfortable in social situations and who may have had other emotional issues.
Dougherty said he knows society can be "vicious and stereotyping" for anyone trying to get help. "That's the responsibility of that family to seek help," he said. "Our alarms have to go up more today than they ever have before."
Dougherty said Havre de Grace has taken action to help individuals or families who may been in need of emotional assistance and counseling to receive such help.
"The verbiage 'It can't happen here,' it's just a false sense of security. It can happen anywhere," he continued. "But [for] us, all of us, as a community, there are identifiers and I will tell you right now through our local law enforcement agencies to include our police department, they do have the ability to direct families, to get them assistance, to sit down and talk with those family members who are perhaps seeking assistance for a family member or a close friend."
"Don't ever hesitate to call. It may be the best call you've ever made," Dougherty said, becoming emotional again as he thought of the victims. "God bless those children. God bless the adults. I don't think there's any more that can be said."
Gun control debate
Councilman Joe Smith expressed his "heartfelt sympathy and condolences for the people of Connecticut and the country for having to go through yet again such a horrible crime."
He suggested, however, that the incident brings up the issue of gun control, saying part of the problem is the country has "hundreds of millions" of guns but only about a four-year supply of ammunition, so something could be done to limit the supply of ammunition.
"I am, of course, saddened by this but the sadness has quickly transferred itself into anger, and my anger is not necessarily against the individual [shooter]," Smith said. "My anger is really focused on the insanity of having semi-automatic weapons in the society in the way we do. It just makes no sense."
"I'm all for Second Amendment rights, I'm all for the right to bear arms, but it just seems to me there is no logic to having large numbers of people having the types of weapons that they do that can produce this type of violence in a short amount of time," Smith continued.
"We are better than this. You look around the globe and look at other civilized countries, developed countries, this doesn't exist, and it's time that politicians like ourselves are brave enough to say to those that disagree with us that this has to stop and there has to be a rational way to deal with this, and it has to be a conversation," he said. "We have to have this conversation and it's ludicrous that we don't."
Smith said he is not afraid to be challenged by the "powerful gun lobby."
"Let them do it, because we can't allow the children of this country to be mowed down," he said, adding he believes there have been 70 shootings since the Arizona incident that critically wounded then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, among others.
"It just boggles my mind," he said.
'Painful time for everybody'
Councilwoman Barbara Wagner said she was mulling over what lessons can be taken from the tragedy.
"It's a very painful time for everybody and trying to reflect on it and trying to think, what are we supposed to learn, what are we supposed to get from this," she said. "One thing I saw in media that I thought was an important perspective is, it's time for us to talk openly about mental illness. It shouldn't be a secret. There's a lot of people with problems that can be helped and I think we need to make some improvements within our health care system to help those of us with mental illness."
Councilman Dave Glenn said he can not imagine the pain Newtown is suffering and heard the community took its lights down for Christmas because it "just wasn't a celebration anymore."
Councilman Bill Martin, who is also a middle school teacher, said the Newtown incident was too emotional but did not want anyone to think he does not care.
"I just can't bring myself to talk about it so I'll skip Newtown comments this evening," he said.
Councilman Randy Craig agreed.
"I, along with Mr. [Councilman Bill] Martin, we have two young kids that share a kindergarten and second-grade class, so if I think about it for more than a moment, I won't be able to finish the rest of the meeting," Craig said, but wished everyone "the best of a holiday season" and that they may be able to spend time with their loved ones.
Police are prepared
Walter said the city's police are well-prepared to handle a similar tragedy.
She said the department conducts "active shooter" training each year, and if residents see police officers running in and out of buildings, that is what they are training for.
They also work closely with county schools to understand the layout of the schools, not only in Havre de Grace but around the county.
Walter was emotional as she talked about the teachers in Newtown not being trained to go toward gunfire, as police officers are.
"Their heroism is unbelievable. I have a lot of sympathy for them and their families and I commend them," she said through tears.
Walter said one does not have to be a parent to feel "overwhelming grief" for the situation.
"It's very difficult to try to make sense of why a 20-year-old man would shoot innocent children," she said, adding it is even more difficult during the holiday season.
"On behalf of all the men and women of the Havre de Grace Police Department, we grieve so much and our hearts go out to all the folks in Newtown, Conn.," she said.
The council opened its meeting with a moment of silence for Newtown, and Pastor Ellen Witko of Webster Congregation Christian Church asked for prayers for the town's residents "as they struggle through darkness in what should be a season of happiness."
Clovis Bolen, annexation, Frederick
Also at Monday's meeting, the council mourned the recent death of longtime city employee Clovis Bolen, who Dougherty said worked from 1976 until his retirement in 1992 as a building inspector and code enforcement officer.
"I assure you, it was a rough job back in 1976 because there was little to really work with," Dougherty said with a laugh, pointing out zoning never really latched on until 1982.
"Mr. Bolen in his travels worked hard and was good with the people and never, ever shirked his duty or turned his back on people that had questions," the mayor continued, calling him "a very compassionate individual and he will be missed severely."
The council introduced a resolution that would allow the city to annex the onetime Kiwi Shoe Polish can factory property on Post Road into city limits.
The members also discussed a program in Frederick about identifying vacant and blighted properties that several council members applauded and said they hope to copy.
The council heard a presentation from Fred Cullum on the water and sewer commission. Cullum said revenue has declined by more than $1 million even though expenses were reduced. He said the fund has failed to meet revenue projections, reflecting 17 fewer building permits than were budgeted for in the fiscal year.
Cullum added, however, that "it is almost certain that as new construction again increases that the total number of connections will be reached and all the money [will be received]."