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Carroll’s top government stories of 2019: County files lawsuit, settles another, considers change to charter

Carroll County Commissioners, from left, Steve Wantz, Ed Rothstein, RIchard Weaver, Dennis Frazier and Eric Bouchat take questions during the annual State of the County Address hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce in Westminster Tuesday, Jan. 8. In 2019, the board discussed forming a charter government committee, led the county to file a lawsuit against opioid manufactures and settled a lawsuit about commissioner-led prayer before meetings.
Carroll County Commissioners, from left, Steve Wantz, Ed Rothstein, RIchard Weaver, Dennis Frazier and Eric Bouchat take questions during the annual State of the County Address hosted by the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce in Westminster Tuesday, Jan. 8. In 2019, the board discussed forming a charter government committee, led the county to file a lawsuit against opioid manufactures and settled a lawsuit about commissioner-led prayer before meetings. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Looking back at 2019, the Times has put together a list of the biggest stories from four categories based on significance as well as online readership. Over four days, we will present in roughly chronological order a look back at the stories that shaped the year in Carroll County business, education, government and breaking news.

Municipal and county government boards and councils were in the news for a lot more than the usual battles over budgets or zoning issues in 2019. From the county beginning one lawsuit and ending another while contemplating a change to charter government, to a city passing a pair of controversial ordinances to a youth movement in one of the municipal elections, elected officials kept it interesting.

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Westminster passes bag ban

The Common Council of the city of Westminster voted in May to restrict the distribution of single-use plastic bags. It will make Westminster the third municipality in Maryland to impose a bag ban, after Chestertown and Takoma Park. Three states have passed similar bans.

A public hearing was held at the April 24 meeting of the Mayor and Common Council, which prompted a robust number of community members to comment. It also prompted amendments to be made to the legislation, which will become a new chapter of the city code and go into effect in the summer of 2020.

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Amendments to the original ordinance removed language that would have classified single-use plastic bags in violation of town code as contraband that could be confiscated and also added exemptions for plastic bags used in “wrapping plant material (such as tobacco) that might be subject to spoilage, bags used by restaurants for take-out and delivery of foods, and the distribution of bags by small businesses with fewer than 25 employees at all of their establishments, unless the business is a franchise."

Elections: Incumbents mostly strong, change in Taneytown

All eight municipalities held elections in the spring and the status quo largely reigned — with the exception of Taneytown.

On a Tuesday in May, nine incumbents ran for mayor or council seats in Westminster, Hampstead, Union Bridge and New Windsor. All nine won, including Mayor Chris Nevin in Hampstead and Mayor Perry Jones in Union Bridge. There was little competition in previous races held in Sykesville and Mount Airy or the one in Manchester the following week.

Taneytown, on the other hand, saw significant changes as several voters on election day said they were looking for “young blood” after a trying past few years that included controversy and legal issues. Bradley Wantz, 37, defeated three-term Mayor James McCarron, Councilman Donald Frazier and former Councilman Paul Chamberlain. And, at 21, Daniel Haines became the city’s youngest-ever councilman.

Civil War memorial denounced

 
(Bradley Wantz/Courtesy photo)

When 2019 began, it appeared quite possible that Taneytown would eventually be the home for sculptor Gary Casteel’s dream of a National Civil War Memorial. That began to look far less likely in February, when Councilman Bradley Wantz denounced the idea. To that point, Taneytown elected officials had mostly raved about the proposal — which aimed to honor all aspects of the war — during a time when Confederate monuments have been removed in Maryland and across the United States.

“I am wholly opposed to this memorial in Taneytown,” Wantz announced at the Mayor and Council workshop meeting Feb. 6. Wantz questioned the whether the proposed memorial would have a significant positive impact on the city and objected to the inclusion of a portrait of assassin John Wilkes Booth. Wantz also said traffic to it would inconvenience residents without leading the state to put in a bypass.

After Wantz was sworn in as mayor in May with two new councilmen who weren’t sold on the idea, the chance of the memorial finding a home in Taneytown was essentially dead.

Pay-as-you-throw program discontinued

At a Town Council meeting in June, New Windsor’s leaders decided not to continue with the pilot pay-as-you-throw waste program, opting not to renew it when it expired at the end of that month despite expressing some support for it.

The program encouraged recycling and had residents paying for how much garbage they threw away. “Trash is down by 43.5%, which means a 43.5% lower tip fees pain by the town of New Windsor at the landfill,” said Kristen Brown, a consultant with WasteZero, which administered the pilot. “And the recycling rate nearly doubled — from 19% to 37%.”

Mayor Neal Roop did not have a vote on the matter, but given the opportunity, “I would’ve voted for it," he said. "I still think the program has a lot of merit.” Citizens, however, did not seem to embrace the initiative.

Caleb Kraus of Ecology Services Refuse and Recycling collects garbage in New Windsor, which was piloting a pay as you throw trash program, Wednesday, Jan. 2. New Windsor elected not to continue with the program.
Caleb Kraus of Ecology Services Refuse and Recycling collects garbage in New Windsor, which was piloting a pay as you throw trash program, Wednesday, Jan. 2. New Windsor elected not to continue with the program. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Charter government discussion tabled

Shortly after taking officer, County Commissioner Eric Bouchat began advocating for looking into changing Carroll’s form of government from commission to charter. Experts were brought in to speak at informational sessions.

From left to right, Tom Coe, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, Del. Susan Krebs, and Commissioner Eric Bouchat gathered for a town hall meeting to discuss the possibility of charter government. Bouchat served as moderator.
From left to right, Tom Coe, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, Del. Susan Krebs, and Commissioner Eric Bouchat gathered for a town hall meeting to discuss the possibility of charter government. Bouchat served as moderator. (Mary Grace Keller / BSMG)

Some, including the Carroll County Republican Central Committee, were against the idea, fearing, among other things, it would make it too easy to raise taxes. One group vowed to force an expensive special election if a charter writing committee was formed. When Bouchat was accused of wanting to become county executive of a charter county, he said not only did he not want that job, but he wouldn’t running again for county commissioner.

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At a July meeting of the Board of Commissioners, after hearing presentations from County Attorney Tim Burke and Election Director Katherine Berry, Bouchat made a motion to form a nine-member charter writing board. It failed for lack of a second, and didn’t come to a vote. Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, then motioned to table, or delay, the charter discussion for 12 months. That motion was approved 4-1.

Westminster codifies elected officials’ benefits

Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick
Westminster Mayor Joe Dominick

The Westminster Common Council passed in August an ordinance without the signature of Mayor Joe Dominick that formally recognizes that elected officials of the city are eligible for benefits in regards to health, vision and dental insurance. These benefits have been available to the council since 2014, city documents show — and even longer for mayors of the city — but the ordinance formally codified it.

The council head earlier voted on the ordinance, but when the ordinance went to the mayor for his signature, Dominick declined to sign. His opposition — and that of Councilman Ben Yingling — was not with making the benefits transparent in the city code but rather to the benefit itself.

In researching, Dominick said, he reached out to 37 other municipalities with population sizes similar to Westminster — within a difference of 3,000 people — and found that none offered the option of benefits to their elected officials. The Times found that of the municipalities in Carroll, Westminster is the only one that considers elected officials eligible for health insurance.

County settles commissioner prayer lawsuit

Not willing to risk more taxpayer dollars, Carroll County’s Board of Commissioners unanimously voted in August to settle a lawsuit about prayers in their meetings, after numerous citizens told them doing so would cost them their First Amendment rights and the respect of Republican voters.

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Former commissioner Robin Frazier urged the board of commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead.
Former commissioner Robin Frazier urged the board of commissioners not to settle the prayer lawsuit Thursday and take the fight to the Supreme Court instead. (Mary Grace Keller / Carroll County Times)

In Hake v. Carroll County, two residents in 2013 sued the county in the U.S. District Court of Maryland in Baltimore because they believe sectarian prayers at the start of commissioners’ meetings to be unconstitutional. The suit was filed against the 59th Board of Commissioners, which consisted of Haven Shoemaker, Richard Rothschild, Robin Frazier, David Roush and Doug Howard, county attorney Tim Burke said.

In settling the suit, the commissioners agreed not to have commissioner-led prayers at future meetings and $125,000 was to be awarded to the American Humanist Association, which provided legal counsel for the plaintiffs, to cover legal fees from the case. Had the county on fought on, commissioners feared it could cost many times that.

County sues opiod manufacturers

In October, attorneys for Carroll County refiled a lawsuit against opioid drug manufacturers in Carroll County Circuit Court. The case had been temporarily withdrawn after it was moved to federal court at the request of the defendants. Carroll’s legal team decided to regroup and refile Tuesday to try and prevent the case from reaching the federal level.

That lawsuit was originally filed on July 25 in Carroll County Circuit Court, alleging that more than 25 named pharmaceutical companies and their subsidiaries contributed to and profited from an opioid drug addiction epidemic that has claimed 260 lives in Carroll from 2012 through the first half of 2019. The lawsuit, which sought compensatory damages, also named individual members of the Sackler family, owners of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, the company that in 2007 pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of understating the risks of OxyContin and paid more than $600 million in penalties.

More than 2,000 lawsuits against opioid drug makers are now part of the multidistrict litigation, or MDL, before a federal judge in Ohio. Rather than be one case among those thousands, the suit was refiled and modified in an effort to make sure the case stays local.

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