Gouge action spurs spat


A decision by Julia Walsh Gouge, president of the Carroll commissioners, to hold a series of routine community meetings sparked a heated argument among the county's three commissioners yesterday.

Their first public argument began when Gouge accused fellow Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier of lying to a reporter when asked about a series of community meetings that Gouge's secretary had scheduled. Frazier told a reporter that she did not know about them until she saw a press release announcing the dates of the meetings.

"You knew about these meetings," Gouge said, while the commissioners waited for a budget meeting to begin. "We have been talking about this for months. Why would you lie about it?"

Gouge's secretary scheduled four of the five meetings on Wednesday evenings in an effort to give county residents who work an opportunity to meet with Gouge. At the informal meetings, the commissioners would sit at a desk and wait for residents to voice their concerns.

"Church is my first priority. You know that I go to church on Wednesday evenings," said Frazier. "I don't know whether you're trying to exclude me or the thousands of other people who go to church on Wednesday night, but when I found out about it, I was as angry as you are now.

"I don't understand why you scheduled those meetings without talking to [Commissioner] Donald [I. Dell] and I about them first," Frazier said.

She reminded Gouge that, as president of the board, Gouge represents the commissioners when she speaks publicly.

During the outburst, the three commissioners exchanged angry words about several recent board decisions - from the rezoning of a Woodbine farm to the proposed construction of a water treatment plant at Piney Run Reservoir to a recent land deal in which the county paid more than six times the appraised value for farmland outside Uniontown. Gouge objected to the board's decisions on each of those issues.

Dell told Gouge she should keep her opinions to herself if she does not agree with the final decision.

"You shouldn't stir things up," Dell told Gouge. "You make us look like the bad guys."

"I can't go along with that," said Gouge in reference to Dell's request that she keep quiet about issues that upset her.

Though the commissioners had agreed not to appear on a broadcast about plans for a Piney Run Park water treatment plant, Gouge did an interview on Maryland Public Television last month at the park and discussed her proposals for solving Carroll's water woes.

In July, Dell and Frazier voted to build the plant at the park, which surrounds the reservoir. Gouge opposes that plan, fearing it would destroy the popular recreation area.

During yesterday's argument, Gouge told her colleagues that she thought they had been noncommittal when asked if they were interested in attending the community meetings. Gouge held similar meetings during her previous two terms as commissioner.

"I don't have a problem with the meetings, but I am angry about the comments you made about the Lease property, implying that the price went up every time I spoke to the Lease brothers," said Dell, who played a lead role for the county in recent negotiations for the land. Gouge said the price Carroll offered to pay Sidney Darrell Lease Jr. and his brother, David Vincent Lease, for the land seemed to increase after Dell met with the brothers. Gouge did not say that the Leases' asking price escalated.

Frazier and Dell voted Aug. 14 to pay the Leases $850,000 for farmland in Union Bridge - more than six times the property's appraised value - to make construction of a road and railway spur possible. The project will serve Lehigh Cement's expanded plant, which is expected to double in size. Gouge abstained from the vote.

Dell also accused Gouge of getting state officials riled up about the board's decision to rezone the Rash farm in Woodbine.

"The state knew about that rezoning for months and never said a thing," Dell said. "But just days before we voted on it, you called [state officials] and all of sudden there's a big uproar."

Last year, Dell and Frazier approved a request by the Rash brothers to rezone 145 acres of their farm off Route 97 for a 50-house golf course community.

The decision to rezone the property drew criticism from state officials who feared it would undermine the county's agricultural preservation program and lead to unbridled development in South Carroll.

"I don't understand why I shouldn't express my feelings about the issues," Gouge said, noting that Frazier spoke publicly about her concerns over the location of the long-planned Westminster High School shortly after the commissioners took office.

Frazier objected to the proposed site, near Cranberry Station Elementary, noting traffic concerns. She favored building the school north of Westminster, on farmland at Sullivan and Lemmon roads. Gouge and Dell refused to agree to changing the location.

The commissioners' spat erupted before the start of a public meeting, though only four people were in the room at the time - the commissioners and a reporter.

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