Mayor's birthday card sparks Aberdeen uproar

The Baltimore Sun

The birthday card bore the name "Friends of Aberdeen" in the return address, which recipient Karen Fox-Talbot thought referred to the citizens group she worked with to oppose an annexation effort by Aberdeen Mayor S. Fred Simmons.

"I thought, 'That's really cool. I got a birthday card from them,'" Fox-Talbot said. "I opened it up and it was [junk] from Fred Simmons. I was very upset because I thought he joined the group."

The use of the name "Friends of Aberdeen" in the mayor's birthday card initiative has riled some residents in the Harford County city who say Simmons' ally appropriated the name used by the citizens group that frequently criticizes him.

The mayor began sending cards to residents about a month ago, shortly after his friend and business partner, Stephen Wright, obtained the licensing rights to the name.

Members of the citizens group say they have used the name since January. They say Wright secured the legal rights to their name to create confusion in the months leading up to municipal elections.

"It's to undermine us," said Cathy Burkheimer, a member of the group. "Once again it's dirty politics. I guess that's part of the game, but they're misleading a lot of people."

Simmons said the name should belong to whomever holds the legal rights.

"If they have legal claim to the name, it's theirs," he said. "If it's not, they shouldn't use it."

Simmons said he was surprised to hear about rancor over the birthday cards.

For years, he sent cards to clients in his insurance business, he said.

"What have we come to?" Simmons said. "It's a birthday card. Does it say, 'Vote for me?' Or does it say, 'Happy birthday?'"

He scoffed at the notion that the cards are a campaigning tool in advance of the Nov. 6 election.

"When I show up at a church to talk to people in the parish, like I've done every Sunday, is that early electioneering?" he said. "I've had several meetings with residents with their complaints to the city, is that electioneering?"

The cover of the bright yellow card is emblazoned with colorful balloons, while the inside carries a lengthy poem and the phrase, "I appreciate you!" preceding the mayor's signature.

The card arrived in Fox-Talbot's mailbox Aug. 6 - nearly a month after her birthday.

"The card is hanging on my wall in my office, because I think it's hysterical," Fox-Talbot said.

The squabble over the name has revived the acrimony between the mayor and the citizens group that began when residents organized to oppose the city's plan to annex 520 acres for development.

In a December referendum, voters overwhelmingly rejected the annexation proposal. Members say that's when they organized under the name Friends of Aberdeen.

Wright said he started using the name before this year.

In a document filed with the state June 4, Wright described the purpose of Friends of Aberdeen as to "assist Mayor S. Fred Simmons, or other future Mayors in the city of Aberdeen to promote the city and its planned future growth."

In addition to being Simmons' friend, Wright was contracted to perform accounting work for the city for about six months. Documents relating to Wright's hiring are among the materials subpoenaed by the state prosecutor's office in May.

Late last month, Wright sent an e-mail to the citizens group asking that it stop using the name.

The group will comply with Wright's request, said founding member Chuck Doty, who added that the dispute has provided an important lesson.

"The losing of the name isn't that important," he said. "It's our own fault; we should've trademarked it ourselves."

The residents' group has temporarily renamed itself the Honest Friends of Aberdeen until a new permanent name is implemented, Doty said.

"We have selected another name," he said. "However, I can't tell you until we get it trademarked."

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