High Street homes

This is a view of homes along High Street in the town of New Windsor. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun / March 19, 2012)

In the quaint town of New Windsor, officials have sold the municipal ball fields to a cement company, purchased a dilapidated inn with taxpayer money for development that hasn't happened and stuck residents with the bill for a nearly $5 million wastewater treatment plant.

While the town council is up for election next year, angry residents aren't waiting to express their displeasure. They're pushing a measure to allow the recall of local officials. Petitioners say they aren't targeting the entire council or any one official: They want their petition campaign to send a message to all.

"We are not Occupy New Windsor," said Rebecca Merson, who moved to Atlee Ridge, one of the town's new developments, in 2004. "We are not asking to recall anyone specific. There is no coup. We just want the ability to recall an official who is not doing the job."

Rebellion in this corner of Carroll County mirrors the citizen activism that has led to petition drives from across the political spectrum — against the state's Dream Act, which would allow in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, and the recently approved same-sex-marriage law — as well as challenges to some U.S. corporations.

In Maryland and across America, it seem, petitions are becoming a preferred method of protest.

Opponents have petitioned the Dream Act to referendum this fall. Another group is distributing petitions for a referendum on the law allowing same-sex marriage that's set to take effect next year. Meanwhile, an online petition drive helped convince Bank of America to rescind a proposed fee for debit card holders. Another, started by school children, convinced producers of "The Lorax" to include a stronger environmental message in the movie trailer.

Not to mention Occupy Wall Street, which has protested social and economic inequality and circulated a number of petitions.

Eric Zeemering, assistant professor of public policy at University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that more than anything, the sluggish economy is motivating such petition drives and recall efforts.

"There is not mass public distrust of government," he said. "In many cases, this is about the serious budget and services challenges these jurisdictions face as the full impact of the recession unfolds. It is also not unique to any one area. From time to time, local governments make poor decisions."

New Windsor's officials bristle at the petition drive, which is seeking a referendum to include a recall provision in the town charter.

"You can change things here every two years," said Mayor Neal Roop, who will be up for re-election next year. "It's called an election."

And Town Attorney Michelle Ostrander said the petitioners may not have thought through the effort.

"What happens if they are successful in removing all the officials?" she asked. "Then what do you do? The charter provides that vacancies are filled by appointment from those remaining on the council."

The charter also gives the council authority to schedule an election, which it could defer until May 2013, the next municipal election, to put the referendum on the ballot.

Petitioners say action is needed now. Tom Gubernatis, who moved to town in 2005 and ran unsuccessfully for a council seat last year, said: "If a boss is unhappy with an employee, he doesn't keep him until the next election."

New Windsor, founded in the late 18th century at the intersection of two well-traveled crossroads, boasts tree-lined streets of stately Victorian and colonial houses, many of them homes to generations of the same families.

Surrounded by rolling farmland, the town offers little in the way of industry and is seven miles from the nearest supermarket in Westminster, the county seat. Not much changed in this bedroom community until the building boom of the late 1990s, when some nearby farms were sold to developers and the town celebrated its first groundbreaking in more than a half-century.

The town expanded by about 500 residents and is now suffering growing pains. The treatment plant, built to accommodate future but as yet unrealized growth, the $175,00 purchase of the historic Dielman Inn, the sale of the ball fields to facilitate operations at Lehigh Cement Co. in nearby Union Bridge, and a $10,000 raise for the town manager have all irked residents.

"They have socked it to us all at one time," said Gubernatis. "They jumped into these projects and stuck us with the bill."