Candidates wallow in political mud as quiet Shore town goes to the polls


PRINCESS ANNE -- When the election polls here close Tuesday evening, the outcome of the political battle between what some locals call the "bully boys" and the "come heres" could be anticlimactic.

Regardless of who wins the pair of town commission seats up for HTC grabs, it's likely voters will continue to talk about the campaign itself: the unusual newspaper ad that called for the defeat of two candidates, leaks that the state prosecutor was investigating complaints against local officials, charges that a secret organization wants to take over the town office.

On the surface, the race among four candidates for two seats on the five-member Princess Anne Commission appears to be the classic insider vs. outsider contest. But even in this normally peaceful Somerset County town of 1,700 residents, it's not quite that simple.

Candidates Joe Minor and Chuck Nittel are the outsiders.

Mr. Minor moved to Princess Anne from Washington four years ago to set up an antiques business. Mr. Nittel arrived from New Jersey a year earlier and started a bed-and-breakfast and a home construction firm.

By local parlance, Mr. Minor and Mr. Nittel are "come heres," a matter-of-fact expression meaning newcomers to the area who may not have grasped small-town, Eastern Shore ways.

Candidates Carol Wink and Bob Erickson are incumbent commissioners.

Mrs. Wink is a Somerset County native. Mr. Erickson left Philadelphia to retire in Princess Anne six years ago. He's a "stay here" because he's been around long enough to have been elected commission president.

They're the insiders. But they're not the "bully boys," a term reserved for a group of local businessmen and professionals who, in the eyes of Minor and Nittel supporters, have been hard at work trying to make sure the "come heres" are defeated in Tuesday's election.

The Minor and Nittel campaigns have centered on accusations that the town government is unresponsive to residents' needs, fails to keep a balanced budget and spends money freely without consulting first with taxpayers.

The town manager, with approval of the commission, has spent up to $10,000 without putting a contract out to bid or without first holding a public hearing.

But perhaps the harshest criticism comes in the charge that an unelected shadow government -- including members of the "bully boys" -- wields strong influence over the town office.

"The town is being run, not by those who were elected, but by the people behind the scenes," said Mr. Minor.

In an attempt to prove their allegations, Mr. Minor and Mr. Nittel have peppered town officials with requests to examine budget documents and have routinely attended town meetings to question how the town is being run.

And a group called Princes Anne Concerned Citizens, which supports the Minor and Nittel campaigns, filed complaints with the Office of the State Prosecutor alleging, among other things, that town officials misused grant funds.

In a letter sent to the group this week and distributed to town officials, State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli said his investigators found no evidence of criminal misconduct on the part of the town commission.

Nevertheless, talk of the probe was leaked to the media and on the streets of Princess Anne in hopes of creating voter doubt about the incumbents, according to a town source.

Actions taken by Concerned Citizens, which includes some people who do not live in Princess Anne, outraged at least one town official, whose request for a list of members was refused by organization leaders.

"They say we're not for open government; they won't even say who they are," said Manfred Frank, who does not have to seek re-election to the town commission until 1994.

"They're a secret organization," he added. "We're not."

Mr. Minor, who stepped down as vice president of Concerned Citizens when he decided to seek office, said one of the reasons the roster is kept private is that some members feel they will be penalized by the "bully boys" and town officials.

In response to the aggressive "come heres" campaign, an anonymous group paid cash for a full-page ad in the Somerset Herald weekly newspaper attacking Mr. Minor and Mr. Nittel.

The ad did not contain an authorization line identifying who paid for it because it is not required under municipal election laws.

The ad accused the two candidates of costing taxpayers "thousands of dollars by a constant bombarding of our town, county and state personnel with ridiculous and unreasonable demands -- many times doubling their workload." The ad caught local readers by surprise. Even in tough campaigns, candidates never take out full-page ads because the cost -- more than $700 -- is about four times what most office seekers will spend on an entire campaign.

Local real estate broker Harvey Hastings said he was one of more than a dozen people who helped pay for the ad because he said many voters were afraid the Minor and Nittel campaigns were making headway.

Mr. Hastings said the idea for the ad came while a group of area residents were talking about the election.

He said many voters had grown tired of the accusations against town officials and wanted to help the incumbents.

When the matter of raising money for the ad came up, Mr. Hastings said there was no debate.

"There was so much money flying around it was like being on a crap room floor on pay day," he said.

Mr. Hastings, who laughed when told he was identified as one of the "bully boys," said he opposes the elections of Mr. Minor and Mr. Nittel because he believes their participation in town affairs has been disruptive.

"All they have done is one unbroken string of negatives," he said.

Tony Bruce, a prominent local lawyer, said some voters who oppose the "come here" candidates question their style of involvement in town politics.

"It's not that they've been vocal; it's that's they've not been cordial," he said. "That makes for an angry election."

Mr. Bruce said the attacks on the town office have soured some longtime residents, who are not used to such campaigns.

But Mr. Nittel said the criticism is intended to educate voters and will not end if he is not elected Tuesday.

"If I don't get elected, I'm not going to shut up," he said. "I have too much at stake in this town. There's a group of people who respect me. I'll just have to get them out to the town meetings."

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