CRISFIELD -- Here in this old watermen's town, a place where everybody knows everybody and the pace of life is usually slow, politics have turned bare-knuckle tough as voters head to the polls for tomorrow's election.
Many business and civic leaders argue that the mayor and council have effectively turned over control of city assets to a private development firm, and they are backing a slate of candidates who have promised to reverse the "sweetheart deal."
"The people are all fired up because the council gave the city away," says Raymond Anderson, a retired chef who is running for a council seat on the reform ticket. "We need to clean house."
The bitter campaign persuaded one council member not to seek another term and brought another to tears at a public meeting. A third incumbent, a 14-year council veteran, says she has received threatening mail. The four-term mayor has declined to take part in candidates forums.
"A lot of people are acting out of emotion and seem to think we're here to rip them off," says Charles A. McClenahan, a former Republican delegate who represented Crisfield in the legislature for 11 years. He and Joseph Corrado, a Delaware builder, head the development firm that got the contract that has people angry.
McClenahan says the deal is good for the town. "If this doesn't go forward, it's Crisfield's loss, not ours," he says.
In this blue-collar community, which has suffered for decades amid the decline of the Chesapeake Bay's seafood industry, residents are concerned about affordable housing, jobs, drug abuse - and the 340 waterfront condominiums that have gone up in the past few years and loom six stories tall, a sign of how Crisfield is changing.
But most in the town of 2,700 seem to agree that this benchmark election will turn on the issue of trust.
The City Council voted to give McClenahan's firm, Crisfield Associates LLC, exclusive rights to develop city-owned property or to take a share of any profits made from projects developed by others on nearly 250 acres of available municipal land.
In exchange, the company will pay for a master plan to guide the city's downtown redevelopment. The study is expected to cost up to $600,000.
City officials defend the deal, saying they have found an able firm willing to manage Crisfield's future development and bear the expense for the master plan. The arrangement will help the ailing downtown take advantage of the interest in Crisfield that brought the condominiums, supporters of the deal say.
But critics say there was no reason for a no-bid contract - especially when the Chamber of Commerce, among others, also offered to pay for the master plan for the cash-strapped city.
Casey Todd, whose family has run MeTompkin Bay Oyster Co. for more than 50 years and now shares the old commercial dock with a high-rise condominium building, said Crisfield Associates offers little the city couldn't have gotten by seeking bids from a range of consultants.
"I think it's fairly typical where you find public officials who get arrogant and won't listen to the people," says Todd. "I'd bet you that 80 percent of the people here think this is a bad idea. They've created a middle man where none existed. There are plenty of possible ways to pay for it, including money the chamber offered to raise."
Business leaders and others say they first heard of the planned arrangement with Crisfield Associates when documents describing it were leaked to community activists last year. They quickly organized Concerned Citizens of Crisfield, aimed at overturning the deal.
But in a 3-2 vote March 29, the council ratified the contract with Crisfield Associates in a packed City Hall meeting room where police stood by and Mayor Richard Scott threatened to remove anyone who spoke out. Since then, two incumbent council members as well as Scott have become lightning rods for critics. The Concerned Citizens group wants to unseat all three of them.
'Clean Sweep' sought
Banners and signs promoting the slate of candidates seeking to pull off a "Clean Sweep" in the nonpartisan election are plastered on downtown businesses and spiked into lawns all over Crisfield. They compete with real estate signs in front of century-old wood-frame houses and colorful banners offering condominiums starting at $350,000.
Another set of signs says "Democracy is Dead in Crisfield!!! We Sacrificed Our Future with the Crisfield Associates!!"
Newspaper ads placed by the residents coalition have been blunt, accusing council members Daniel K. Thompson, who works as Somerset County's economic development director, and Catherine A. Brown, a retired teacher, of turning their backs on Crisfield.
"This one is absolutely vicious," says Brown, 70. "It's gotten so I refuse to open any mail without a proper name and address. We tried to help the situation, and it seems like a case of no good deed going unpunished."
She and Thompson point out that state officials encouraged the city to form a public-private partnership to help it qualify for the Ehrlich administration's Priority Places program, aimed at steering state grants and other assistance for municipal renovation projects.
The administration's interest in privatizing the state-run Somers Cove Marina here only added to critics' concerns that residents are losing control of their town.
Brown and others have sharply criticized leaders of the residents group for stirring up fears, particularly 34-year-old John K. Phoebus, the Crisfield attorney who organized it.
"I don't know what John's motivations are, but we've offered numerous times to make a presentation to his group, but he's made no effort," McClenahan said.
Some wonder whether Phoebus, who comes from a prominent Republican family, has political ambitions. Others have questioned his work for developers on waterfront condominiums in Crisfield.
"It's no secret that I have had clients who are developers, but all this work with the citizens group sure hasn't won me any legal business," Phoebus said. "Concerned Citizens isn't opposed to growth and development. But the real theme here is one of mistrust because of the way things have been handled."