Small-town politics take on the nasty air of big city Fired police chief aims to oust former boss in mayoral election


SMITHSBURG -- Think big-city politics get nasty? Check out what Tommy Bowers, former police chief of this one-stoplight town in Western Maryland, has in mind for the mayor who fired him.

He hopes to beat Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers in the election tomorrow, then break the grip that Myers' husband has long held on the town's snowplowing contract. And finally, with the help of a federal appeals court, Bowers hopes to return to his job as police chief and resign as mayor -- at least so long as his appointed successor isn't Myers.

"I was chief of police," Bowers recalls. "She treated me like I was nothing."

No more.

With the election growing near -- and Bowers showing an early lead in a primary vote -- they have been treating each other as blood enemies.

In a three-page letter to voters last week, Myers detailed her reasons for firing Bowers, including references to his bouts with depression, alleged mishandling of town funds and volatile behavior.

Bowers responded in a local newspaper by calling Myers "a seriously wounded animal" whom voters should "put out of her misery."

Folks in Smithsburg, a town used to civility in local affairs, expect things to only get worse.

"It's not Beirut," says Town Councilman David Williams, a Myers backer, "but by God, you won't see much difference in the next three months."

Nothing much has happened before in Smithsburg, set in the foothills nine miles east of Hagerstown. Even the Civil War, which bloodied towns throughout this region, skipped by with just a day of shelling. Save for the cars, downtown looks much as it did a century ago.

Nostalgia is part of the appeal for the town's 1,500 residents. And for a time after they took office in 1994, Myers and Bowers -- both lifelong residents of the area -- seemed the perfect team for improving Smithsburg while preserving its historic charm.

Myers, 63, was a driven administrator who won the town grants, spruced up a downtown corner and tended tirelessly to the dull-but-important details of aging sewers and roads despite a salary of only $2,000 a year.

Bowers, 47, was a cop who chased away drug dealers and befriended everyone else. The job paid $30,000 a year, and he was never happier than when driving around in a patrol car with the radio tuned to classical music and a Tazmanian Devil doll -- a favorite with town children -- sitting over his shoulder.

That's how it was for the first year or two after Myers hired Bowers, an ex-Marine and former Washington County sheriff's deputy, in 1994. But by this time last year, their private war -- fought in screaming matches that echoed throughout the tiny Town Hall -- was already a few months old.

There is little agreement about why relations soured.

Myers says Bowers fell far behind in his paperwork, handled citizen complaints poorly and began neglecting his patrol duties.

Townspeople generally say that Bowers was a visible, vigilant police chief who seemed to be almost constantly on patrol. But Myers maintains that Bowers slacked off; records show his deputy generated 10 times more arrests and citations than Bowers did in 1996.

It's a poor record, she says, for a candidate for mayor.

"He didn't want to work for $30,000," Myers says. "I can't imagine he wants to work for $2,000."

But Bowers says everything was fine until Myers retired from the school system in 1996 and turned the part-time mayor's job into a full-time career. Soon, she was "micromanaging" the Police Department -- requiring frequent meetings, demanding more paperwork and sending notes that Bowers dubbed "Mickeygrams."

He also contends that Myers sought to get traffic tickets against prominent residents fixed -- an allegation she vehemently denies.

Whatever the truth, more time together meant more tension, more screaming.

Former town employee Debbie Campbell -- a Bowers loyalist and witness to much of the fighting -- calls Myers a "control freak" and acknowledges Bowers' administrative shortcomings. But she also hints at the feud's deeper truth.

"He and Mickey kind of were the same," Campbell says. "They butted heads."

Things turned particularly ugly in March 1997 when Myers and the Town Council put Bowers on administrative leave and demanded that he get a psychological evaluation before returning to work.

Though Bowers, who acknowledges a history of depression, was on anti-depressant medication at the time, a psychologist approved his return to work. But the evaluation became a further source of contention when Bowers refused to release the psychologist's full report to town officials.

Five months later, on Aug. 13, 1997, Myers fired Bowers -- but not before arming herself with a county sheriff and two deputies.

The protests in front of the Smithsburg Town Hall began the same day.

Whatever his shortcomings in the mayor's eyes, Bowers was admired around town as a friend and peacekeeper. For many, he became a martyr and Myers the villain.

"The town was run so nice," says Jake Keller, a welder on disability who led protests that swelled to dozens of pickets. "The best thing that happened to Smithsburg, she destroyed."

Bowers has sued the town in hopes of regaining his job and lost wages. A federal judge in Baltimore ruled against him in December, but Bowers has appealed. If he wins back his job as police chief, Bowers says he would resign as mayor.

Last month, in the first round of the mayor's race, Bowers drew 219 votes to Myers' 148. A third candidate, eliminated in tomorrow's nonpartisan general election, got 58 votes.

Myers argues that the voters don't know the whole story about Bowers because she is restricted from talking explicitly about a personnel matter such as his firing. But with the election looming, she has worked to fill in the picture.

"There's another side that [voters] aren't seeing," says Myers, who claims that Bowers' temper is so severe she has felt in physical danger.

Town employees attest to Bowers' temper. At a council meeting last month, Bowers grilled two town workers about a candidates forum they were planning. Both ended up leaving the room in tears.

A third town employee, former state Trooper Fred Hartley, says that he once watched Bowers stick a loaded gun to his own head as a joke and that he has witnessed other strange, volatile behavior by Bowers.

"I don't think he's all there," says Hartley, who has campaigned against Bowers. "Either that or he's got a terrible temper that he can't control."

Bowers laughs off the gun incident and says he only showed a temper when he was provoked by the mayor.

Even so, Bowers and his supporters smell a victory tomorrow. That would put Bowers in the unusual position of running a town that he's suing in federal court.

One of his first actions, he says, would be to put out new bids on the snowplowing contract held for years by Myers' husband. Bowers says the contract is a conflict of interest; Myers contends that it was won in an open bidding process.

A ballot question tomorrow could also give voters the power to remove Town Council members in a recall vote, which some Bowers supporters hope to use to target Myers loyalists.

But Bowers, sensing that redemption is at hand, says he would skip that fight in hopes of returning peace to the town he once patrolled.

"As far as I'm concerned, no more feud," he says. "If anybody feuds, they're going to start it."

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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