Jim Nemeth of Havre de Grace said a proposed resolution about the city election could limit free speech, but the council voted to table the resolution.
Jim Nemeth of Havre de Grace said a proposed resolution about the city election could limit free speech, but the council voted to table the resolution. (Erika Butler/The Aegis)

A move to restrict what some say is freedom of speech in Havre de Grace’s city elections was shot down by the city council Monday night.

A resolution introduced by Councilman David Martin would have prohibited candidates for mayor and city council in Havre de Grace from campaigning based on party affiliations and require they “refrain from participating in candidate forums that may be perceived as partisan unless all candidates are invited to participate and party affiliation is not announced.” Political affiliations are not listed on the ballot in the nonpartisan municipal election.

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In the May 7 election, Mayor William T. Martin is running unopposed for his seat, while incumbents David Martin, Jason Robertson and Carolyn Zinner are facing two candidates — Wynona Hilton-Stanley and Kirk Smith.

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Robertson, Zinner, Hilton-Stanley and Smith, “Democratic candidates for Havre de Grace City Council,” are scheduled to be guest speakers at Wednesday’s meeting of the New Harford Democratic Club at the Holiday Inn Express in Havre de Grace. Neither William T. Martin nor David Martin are listed as speakers. Mayor Martin said at Monday’s meeting he’s a registered Republican.

Resident Jim Nemeth said the resolution is unnecessary, unprecedented and unethical.

“The city election process has functioned very well without introducing controls to the process,” he said. “And in all my years in Havre de Grace, I have never recalled attempts to control candidates.”

The public will decide which candidates are acting appropriately and will vote accordingly, he said.

“Having incumbent council persons decide who challengers speak to is unfair and a direct violation to free speech, as enshrined in our Constitution,” Nemeth said. “And the prohibitions would not be enforceable.”

David Martin said the resolution was not meant to limit free speech.

“This encourages daily dialogue, it allows freedom of opinion and encourages elected officials to act in the best interest of the citizens of Havre de Grace,” the councilman said. “Look at what’s happening across the country. We don’t need that here in Havre de Grace, that’s why I put this forward, to keep us the city we are, in the past, at present and going into the future.”

Councilman Jason Robertson tried to table the resolution, saying that any action taken by the council regarding the election, so close to the one coming up, would not be appropriate.

“I believe this is bad timing,” Robertson said.

It’s also unnecessary, he said, since the city charter clearly states that election are nonpartisan.

“We all have sworn an oath to the city to uphold ordinances and resolutions,” he said. “I know we all have different political leanings, but we can meet on a level, talk things through and no one cares about sides. We do what’s best for the citizens of Havre de Grace.”

Earlier in the meeting, during public comment, other residents voiced their opposition to the resolution.

“You’re trying to fix something that’s not broken,” resident Wanda Boker said. “In Havre de Grace, life is different. Neighbors and friends invite each other into our homes without regard for political party. We have other things to talk about.”

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Members of the dais understand putting politics aside is the right thing to do, she said, and nonpartisan elections and freedom of speech and association are guaranteed.

“We have something good in Havre de Grace, this resolution could very well damage something that isn’t broken,” Boker said.

Mayor Martin reiterated the need to keep city elections nonpartisan. In his 11 years in public office, almost every year an outside party tries to influence elections, he said.

“I never accepted it, I never wanted it,” he said. “Usually though, those candidates never win. The citizens of Havre de Grace are smarter than that. The voters usually get it right.”

The gist of the resolution, he said, was that candidates shouldn’t participate in partisan events.

“[The resolution] is not bad, it’s just us saying ‘stay out our elections,’ ” Martin said. “I feel everyone on this dais understands it and stands behind it anyway.”

After discussion, the council ultimately voted 5-0 to table the resolution.

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