SALISBURY -- Two years of nonstop political feuding in this Eastern Shore crossroads of 22,000 could come to an end today as voters decide whether the city should be run by a city manager.
Then again, almost everybody agrees the real issue isn't the ballot referendum that would change Salisbury's government charter. The real battle is the same one that has dominated local headlines since community activist Barrie Parsons Tilghman won the mayor's office in 1998 and began butting heads with City Council members who resented her combative style.
Tilghman says her enemies -- Council President Robert P. Cannon and Councilman O. Palmer Gillis III -- pushed the city-manager proposal to rein in her authority by turning over day-to-day operations to a professional city manager. A sense of civic responsibility, she says, was not among their motives.
"Clearly, it's an effort to change the rules because some people don't like what happened at the ballot box two years ago," Tilghman says. "It's simply about eviscerating the office of mayor. This is as personal as it gets."
Gillis and Cannon, two of three council members who have noted frustration with the mayor's tactics as the reason they won't seek re-election, insist it is Tilghman who has made things personal.
"This has become very nasty, mud-slinging politics," says Cannon, a Salisbury attorney. "She takes names, she's vindictive. And Barrie has done an excellent job of painting this as a personal attack. She's a master spin doctor."
In January, the five-member council passed a resolution to adopt a city-manager government. Tilghman, a savvy grass-roots organizer who defeated former City Council President Carolyn Hall in the mayor's race in 1998, quickly pulled together a 3,000-plus-signature petition drive to force the question on the ballot.
The council "would burn down the city to get to my house," Tilghman says. "Months ago, I stopped answering accusations from them."
The bare-knuckle struggle started in Tilghman's first two weeks in office when she forced out popular Police Chief Coulbourn Dykes.
Dykes, who died last fall in a plane crash, was ousted amid accusations that he mismanaged a regional drug task force. Tilghman has resisted repeated attempts by the council to release audiotapes of secret negotiations that resulted in Dykes' resignation.
Tilghman further angered council members by trying to hire her chief political adviser, Robin Cockey, a Salisbury lawyer and former councilman who failed in a 1994 bid for the mayor's office, as city solicitor. Later, over the objections of the council, she paid Cockey for legal advice he provided in the Dykes negotiations.
Recently, Tilghman has drawn fire for refusing to release details of the departure of the city's finance director, Frank Baskerville, who is retiring after being stripped of much of his authority.
More important, according to Cannon and Gillis, is that the mayor has the power to thwart the council by using the city bureaucracy to delay or not implement legislation or policy changes.
"Leadership, public service are not about absolute power, but that's what she wants," says Gillis, a developer who has led the way in restoring and renovating Salisbury's historic downtown.
"The City Council is the stepchild of local government. There's certain amount of fear in this community. It's known there will be paybacks," Gillis says.
Harry Basehart, a political scientist at Salisbury State University, worries that political rancor has clouded debate on the issue of a city-manager form of government, a system established in other Maryland towns and cities, including Westminster, Ocean City and Greenbelt.
"I wouldn't say it's tied 100 percent to recent politics, but it's being perceived as an anti-Tilghman, pro-Tilghman debate," Basehart says. "However it turns out, I'm sure it will be decided on the basis of personal politics."
Basehart says that voter turnout will be a key because 25 percent of the city's 11,000 voters usually go to the polls for local elections. Emotion and organizing might push turnout to 40 percent this year, he says.
For Tilghman's part, she says she's looking forward to a new council, regardless of who wins the three vacant seats. "It's shameless, what's gone on. When you step back from all this, it really looks insane."