Small Carroll County town wants a recall option

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."

Roop countered that all those issues were debated in open council sessions, and several were the subject of public hearings.

"We are not hiding anything," he said. "There have been numerous articles in the local news, numerous meetings and public hearings, and there's the [town] newsletter. We put it all out there, but you can't make people come to meetings or read the newsletter."

Townspeople just want to be heard, even if it takes the specter of a recall to make officials listen, said Kim Green, who has lived in an historic Main Street home for 11 years.

"We are not storming the doors of town hall," she said. "They are treating us as a mob stirring up dissent, when all we expect is transparency. We are educated citizens who have researched these issues, and we want communication."

About 535 households, including those of town officials, are paying for the treatment plant. The state kicked in a $550,000 grant and has given the town an interest-free construction loan, but residents still say the cost is onerous.

Roop said he continues to work closely with state legislators to reduce the loan amount. He has been to Annapolis several times to lobby for changes that will mean Maryland's other small towns are not saddled with high costs for upgrades.

"It is so unfair that we have been collecting a state flush tax for all these years that could help pay for these improvements," said Sam Pierce, a councilman and former mayor. "But those funds are only going to the largest sewer systems in the state. We are not getting one penny of that money."

Building a smaller plant could have cut costs. But with 200 new housing lots already approved, officials chose a larger plant.

Town officials have "unrealistic expectations about growth," said Green. "What growth have we seen in this economy? I have no problem with upgrading our plant, but not for an influx of new homes that has not happened.

"I get that we have to grow, but at what cost to those already here?" she said.

The Dielman Inn purchase also figured into the town growth plan. The council bought it a year ago for about $175,000 and hoped to interest a developer in restoring it into offices and shops. No developer has stepped up to work on the 10,000-square-foot building that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Many feel it is far too costly to repair.

The inn, formerly owned by a Roop relative, is back on the market, in the hands of a real estate agent, who is Roop's cousin. Neal Roop said Galen Roop, who knows the building's history, is optimistic about finding a buyer willing to restore it.

"I am proud of my connection to the inn," the mayor said. "There is a lot of heritage there for me and the town."

Many residents also are questioning the sale of the municipal ball fields.

Lehigh paid the town nearly 10 times the appraised value of the seven-acre property and will allow teams to use the fields for the foreseeable future. Proceeds from the nearly $700,000 sale will help offset the cost of remediating the old five-lagoon sewer system, filling in a 5-foot-deep lagoon and making it into new ball fields.

"I feel confident and proud of what we have accomplished," Roop said about the land sale.

But parents may hesitate before letting their children play on grounds that had been a sewage lagoon, Gubernatis said.

As for the town manager's salary, New Windsor's budget shows an increase that brings it to nearly 10 percent of the town's $603,000 annual operating costs.

Roop said it's equitable because the current town manager does not receive health care or retirement benefits. A town manager is critical in a municipality whose officials are all part-time and in most cases employed full-time elsewhere, he said. Roop works full time for Carroll County government.

New Windsor's charter has no mechanism to remove an elected official. The residents' petition drive would bring to referendum an amendment for a recall provision in the town charter.

Residents will need about 150 signatures to bring the recall provision to referendum. They said they have about 100, including several from people who signed immediately after the last council meeting.

Councilman Pierce doubts the petition drive will succeed. Even if the issue makes it to referendum, "there is not a chance in the world it will pass," he predicted.

But Merson, the resident, said: "We are just asking for information, accountability and a workable solution. This is an old town operating under an old-town mentality that may no longer be an option. There are upwardly mobile young families moving here. They want to be heard. There has to be a 'we' here, not a 'them and us.' "

An earlier version of this article misstated Eric Zeemering's title. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.