Mayor has no regrets Aberdeen roiled by noisy disputes at City Hall

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The mayor says she doesn't mind being called a dictator. To Ruth Elliott, that's just groundless name-calling, a product of bitterness among political rivals who never lived down her election.

Whatever they or any of her detractors say about her management style is immaterial, she says. Mrs. Elliott says she's just done what's best for Aberdeen.

Even if that meant launching an investigation of the police chief and his department, amid allegations of mismanagement and improper bookkeeping -- over the objections of City Council members and the city manager.

Then, Mrs. Elliott put the chief, John R. Jolley, on paid administrative leave for a month beginning March 2 -- a move that infuriated the entire council -- only to reinstate him two weeks later.

Just a day before suspending the police chief, after a stormy City Council meeting on his performance, she charged Councilman G. DeWayne Curry with assault. His flying clenched fist came a few inches from her face during a closed council meeting, and she feared being hit, she says.

Mr. Curry denies the charge -- and his lawyer cites affidavits from witnesses rebutting the mayor's claim. A trial date has been set for April 19.

Amid the tumult at City Hall, Mrs. Elliott says, the people of her city left no doubt that they supported her.

Bouquets of flowers and letters supporting her recent actions have arrived at her office, she says.

"The people of Aberdeen want a government run for the people," says Mrs. Elliott. "They want the truth, and that's what I give them. I intend to do the job I was elected to do."

First elected as a town commissioner 11 years ago, Mrs. Elliott says

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voters kept casting ballots for her "because the people trust me and they have confidence in me."

But some blame the mayor for tarnishing the city's image, which they worked hard to improve.

Lynn Becker, a former town commissioner, told Mrs. Elliott at a recent City Council meeting: "You do not have the right to destroy people's lives. You have twisted the charter. It does not say that the mayor takes over the job of town administrator."

In retrospect, Mrs. Elliott says, she should have consulted council members before launching her "fact-finding mission" of the police department.

.' The mayor began the inquiry be

cause, she said, she received numerous complaints and an anonymous letter suggesting low morale and mismanagement. She would not elaborate on the allegations.

But, she says, "When complaints come across my desk, I take a more in-depth look and try to address the problems."

She says she never intended for the political turmoil to explode and regrets the negative publicity it has generated.

For example, the mayor says, had she known she could have taken the allegations to a state special prosecutor, she would have done so from the beginning.

"But I didn't know that," says Mrs. Elliott, "so I did the best I

could. I just don't know all the procedures. I

expect people that work with me to advise me."

That comes as a surprise to some council members, who said they had urged her to call in a special prosecutor, says Councilman Charles R. Boutin.

"There are allegations, and the appropriate authorities should investigate them -- that's what we told the mayor from the beginning," says Mr. Boutin.

"I'm delighted the chief is back on the job. There just wasn't any cause to even temporarily suspend him."

Chief Jolley has declined comment on the allegations against him, but says that since returning to work Monday, he's met with the mayor and city administrator.

-! "We are ready to address prob

lems that exist and provide law enforcement that the people of Aberdeen are accustomed to," he says.

While the mayor agrees that events could have been handled differently, she says she doesn't regret putting the chief on leave.

"There were problems that had to be addressed," she says, "and I felt that could best be accomplished with the chief being on leave."

Now, three investigations into the police department are under way.

The FBI, contacted by Mr. Boutin, is looking into unspecified alleged civil right violations, says Mrs. Elliott.

The state's prosecutor office is investigating, among other things, allegations of improper bookkeeping, and the Harford Sheriff's Office is expected soon to release findings of an investigation of alleged police brutality in the police department, the mayor says.

The mayor, other city officials, investigators and council members refused to elaborate on the investigations.

Says Mr. Boutin: "I just hope we can get all this behind us and go on with the day-to-day business of the city."

City Council members have accused the mayor of imposing her will over the council's objections and in violation of the city's charter.

For her part, the mayor says relations have been strained since May when she became the city's first elected mayor and its first female chief executive.

The recent dispute at City Hall centered on whether Mrs. Elliott had authority to investigate the police department and put its chief on administrative leave.

Council members claim the city charter clearly states that department head inquiries should be dealt with by the city administrator, Peter Dacey.

Calling the mayor a "dictator," council President Ronald Kupferman says: "She's difficult to work with. She doesn't want to be a team player and confide in the council and get a consensus. She just wants to do what she wants to do."

Mr. Kupferman and the other three council members charge the mayor overstepped her bounds in February when she launched her inquiry into the police department's operation without council approval.

But Mrs. Elliott is quick to dismiss the criticism.

"I've been taking verbal abuse for the past 10 months, ever since I was elected mayor," says Mrs. Elliott, who edged George Engelsson, then president of the Aberdeen Board of Commissioners, by 48 votes in last year's nonpartisan mayoral election.

Mr. Boutin, though, blames Mrs. Elliott's management style for the tension between the council and the mayor.

"You just don't get anywhere by

portraying yourself as an outsider, and she has done that since she was first elected to the town commission," he says.

Recent events might give the impression that the council and mayor are always at odds, but that's not so, says Mr. Boutin.

"If anybody looks back at the record, they can see that the votes on most issues this past year have been 5 to 0," he says.

Despite initial differences in interpretations of the charter, the council and the mayor now seem to be in agreement on that at least.

After a closed-door meeting a week ago with the city administrator and the city attorney, Greg Rapisarda, Mrs. Elliott turned over responsibility for supervising all department heads to Mr. Dacey.

Council members and the mayor also hope a complete review of the charter will help the city run more smoothly.

Mr. Boutin said he proposed a review of the charter -- Aberdeen switched from a commission government to a city council government in May -- several months ago.

"The new charter is like the strong steel beginning of a building, with the walls, plumbing and finishing touches still missing," Mr. Boutin says.

The charter also should set term limits for Aberdeen's political leaders, Mr. Boutin suggested.

"Running a small town is like sailing a ship," he says. "Everyone that is qualified should be encouraged to take a turn at the wheel."

Mrs. Elliott agrees that the new charter should be scrutinized.

"We are pioneers," she says, "struggling along to interpret the new charter -- a charter without structure."

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