WCD issues boil over in town hall meeting
Some feel stifled by commissioners
The Charles County Board of Commissioners addressed the public for the first time on the Watershed Conserva- tion District, but according to some in attendance, it was not at all satisfying.
At the first quarterly town hall meeting of the year for District 1, represented by Commissioner Ken Robinson (D), citizens said many people were dissuaded from coming
out and asking questions because of the way the meeting was promoted.
In a press release distributed by the county government on Jan. 31 concerning the meeting, it stated “questions concerning the watershed conservation district will not be addressed since it is under review with the planning commission.” That same information was published in the Maryland Independent.
However, at the beginning of the meeting, county Commissioners’ President Peter Mur- phy (D) said that infor- mation was incorrect and the commissioners could take questions on the proposed zoning text amendment. “If those are in the cards, we’ll certainly deal with those,” Mur- phy said. In an interview with the Maryland Indepedent Thursday after- noon, Murphy addressed the notice published in the Independent and said he takes “full responsibilty” for the information that was given, but said people did still show up and asked the questions they needed to.
During the meeting, the key for the commissioners, Murphy said, is that they must “respect the work that the planning commission is doing.” That is why, he said, commissioners have to be “cautious” about comments they make on anything per- taining to the district.
“They deserve every opportunity to make the best decision they can without any interfer- ence,” he said.
But some suspected the commissioners did not want to take questions on the district. Jer- ry Feith, a White Plains resident and former member of the Charles County Republican Central Committee, said he felt the commissioners purposefully gave false information.
“Thousands of people subscribe to the paper. They all saw this,” Feith said. “When Murphy opened it up, he apologized only because we brought it up.”
The format of the meet- ing did not make things any better, according to Matt Wills, a businessman and Bryantown resident. For each town hall meeting, a different format is chosen by the commissioner who was elected to serve the district. Robinson chose the night’s format and read questions submitted to him off of index cards.
That is not an uncommon method for town hall meetings, but Wills said there needed to be dialogue to actually get the right questions answered. By using this format, the commissioners were able to “dance around” questions and not provide any useful information, he said.
“I was hoping we would be able to communicate in a town hall fashion with our commissioners were people could get up and ask questions,” Wills said.
During the meeting, after Robinson answered Wills’ question about what considerations the commissioners gave citizens when determining regulations for the watershed conservation district, Wills asked if there would be an opportunity for citizens to respond.
But Robinson said that was not his chosen for- mat and if there was, the meeting could potential- ly go over time.
“We’ll be here all night,” Robinson said.
Many of the same questions to the commissioners were repeated throughout the night, Robinson said. The answers for many would have been redundant, he said, and that is why some questions were passed on.
But Bill Dotson, the chairman of the Republican Central Committee, said “the commissioners have an agenda,” and the way they took questions was their way of controlling that agenda.
Dotson, who plans on running against Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton (D-Charles) during the next election cycle, said the commissioners have moved in “an ex- tremist” direction.
“The pendulum swung too far left and now people are reacting to it,” he said.
Dotson was also both- ered, he said, that the commissioners deemed questions about other officials “personal” and would not answer them. Some questions submit- ted by Dotson pertained to whether Planning Commissioner Nancy Schertler was eligible to be on the planning com- mission because of her residency and why prop- erty owned by Murphy in Bryans Road, which is considered a “mixed use village” in the com- prehensive plan, was not considered part of the watershed conservation district.
But Robinson said what the commissioners are trying to do is practical. They are not trying to take away people’s property or do anything out of the ordinary, he said. There are changes still left to be made to the amendment and nothing, at this point, is final, he said.
The district is still in the hands of the planning commissioners and, if they do not make any amendments, Robinson said he certainly will.
“We’re very aware of your concerns and the planning commission is very aware of your concerns,” he said.
The planning commission has a work session, Robinson said, on March 13 and will likely have to have more than one. Then, the zoning text amendment dealing with the plan will return to the county commissioners in the summer after the planning commission process is over. They will have another opportunity to make changes, Robinson said.
There are no expected fiscal losses or downfalls from this plan, Robinson said. No one should lose money or property value, he said, and the county does not need to raise taxes to do it.
It helps if people are involved in the process early on, Robinson said, and the county is doing “everything legally required and more” to notify people about the process and where they are.
Wills said it would have helped and Robinson is correct that if more people were involved early on, they would not be as upset as they are now. However, he said, “people are working.”
“We elect these people to represent us. No one expects anyone to do something like this. People have jobs. People have children,” he said. “They can’t attend ever y meeting.”
Dotson agreed, he said, but now the tide has changed. After the first planning commission public hearing on Nov. 28, he said, citizens saw they needed to be active.
“On November 28, we all woke up,” he said.
As County Commissioner Ken Robinson answers a question read off a card submitted at the first quarterly town hall meeting in the commission chambers, Charles County citizens hold up signs in protest of the Watershed Conservation District, a controversial measure outlined in the county’s recently updated comprehensive plan. The measure addresses land usage in the western part of the county.