Pub­lic comments on WCD called into ques­tion

Crit­ics say record on WCD is skewed, spammed with form let­ters

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­

The wa­ter­shed con­ser­va­tion dis­trict as part of the county’s ap­proved com­pre­hen­sive plan strat­egy has been the talk of the town for months now with thou­sands of peo­ple weigh­ing in for and against the zon­ing text amend­ment.

Dur­ing Mon­day’s Charles County Plan­ning Com­mis­sion meet­ing, the county’s Di­rec­tor of Plan­ning Steve Ball said that, so far on the com­mis­sion’s record, 61 per­cent of comments have been in sup­port of the dis­trict and 39 per­cent have been against, with just over 1,000 comments sub­mit­ted to the com­mis­sion.

How­ever, dur­ing a Thurs­day night town hall meet­ing hosted by Charles County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Vice Pres­i­dent Amanda Stewart (D), some cit­i­zens

claimed that their names were sub­mit­ted into the record in sup­port with­out their con­sent by a chain email ad­vo­cacy group. Oth­ers said their op­po­si­tion was re­moved from the record com­pletely.

Ja­son Henry, the leader of the Charles County Cit­i­zens Rights Group op­pos­ing the WCD, said he sub­mit­ted more than 160 names in op­po­si­tion af­ter col­lect­ing sig­na­tures from cit­i­zens at church out­ings. How­ever, he said, only 64 of those sig­na­tures were sub­mit­ted on the record and his own op­po­si­tion has not been recorded yet.

“I went through all of the doc­u­ments and looked for my name and my sis­ter’s name but I couldn’t find ei­ther,” Henry said. “They don’t have an an­swer as to what hap­pened.”

On top of that, Henry said, many of the let­ters that have been sub­mit­ted to the county through e-mail in sup­port of the WCD are via a form let­ter sub­mit­ted by an ad­vo­cacy web­site called Ev­ery Ac­tion.

Each let­ter, avail­able on the Charles County gov­ern­ment Board Docs web­site, is ad­dressed to Ball. They are un­der the sub­ject “I sup­port the WCD and a Smarter Fu­ture for Charles County!”

Many of the doc­u­ments in sup­port of the dis­trict are from this group, but some cit­i­zens are say­ing they did not ac­tu­ally sign up to sup­port the dis­trict and have been un­know­ingly in­cluded.

Ch­eryl Mad­dox, a Charles County cit­i­zen, said she found out af­ter a phone call from a friend that she was in­cluded on the list. She ad­dressed the is­sue at the town hall meet­ing where she de­manded to both be re­moved from the list and called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the process.

“I de­mand that the let­ter con­tain­ing my name and ad­dress be with­drawn im­me­di­ately,” Mad­dox said. “I be­lieve all of the let­ters from the same email ad­dress should be thrown out as ob­vi­ously they were cre­ated from fraud­u­lent means.”

There are in­di­vid­u­als on the email chain, she said, that she knows moved out of the county and have still been in­cluded.

There are also in­di­vid­u­als, Henry said, who do not live in Mary­land who are com­ment­ing on the process through the email chain. In the chain, there are let­ters of sup­port from places such as Cal­i­for­nia and North Carolina.

There were also du­pli­cated emails on the record de­spite the county hav­ing gone through and re­moved du­pli­cates from the process al­ready. Dur­ing Mon­day’s plan­ning com­mis­sion meet­ing, Ball said he and his staff went through and re­moved du­pli­cates by hand.

Stewart said if there are any in­di­vid­u­als in­cluded on the record on the wrong side of whichever side they sup­port, they should no­tify the county im­me­di­ately.

Stewart said she had not seen the emails from Ev­ery Ac­tion, but said if there were any con­cerns the county would be able to take care of it.

“Please make sure you let the county know be­cause we’re not go­ing to stand for some­one be­ing fraud­u­lent and send­ing in­for­ma­tion that’s not true,” she said. “This board of county com­mis­sion­ers will not stand for that.”

Com­mis­sion­ers’ Pres­i­dent Peter Mur­phy (D) agreed with Stewart and said if there are any con­cerns, the county needs to be no­ti­fied. “Any­time that hap­pens, just let us know,” he said to cit­i­zens af­ter the town hall meet­ing.

Com­mis­sioner Ken Robin­son (D) said, at this point, the county can­not pre­vent form let­ters like that from be­ing sub­mit­ted on the record. But, he said, it would be con­cern­ing, none­the­less, if some­one’s name was sub­mit­ted in er­ror.

Henry agreed with Mad­dox and called for an “in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion” of the process of com­ment sub­mis­sion as well as how the comments are sorted through by county of­fi­cials. If this is hap­pen­ing now, he said, there is no way to tell if it has hap­pened in the past.

“How can we trust their process if we’re see­ing names pop up in the wrong places?” Henry said.

Bill Dot­son, a mem­ber of the Charles County Cit­i­zens Rights Group and the chair­man of the Charles County Repub­li­can Cen­tral Com­mit­tee, said he had been in touch with of­fi­cials at the state level to see if there could be an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the mat­ter.

Form let­ters are what politi­cians use, Dot­son said, to build up false sup­port on an is­sue. He would not be sur­prised, he said, if that is the case with this.

But ei­ther way, Mad­dox said, some­thing has to be changed and her name needs to be re­moved from the list.

“I find it dis­turb­ing that our gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials would let this hap­pen,” she said.

But Robin­son said it ul­ti­mately is not up to gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials what is sub­mit­ted on the record by cit­i­zens. The only thing they can do, he said, is look through the record and de­cide for them­selves.

In his case, he said, he “will not and never will” take form let­ters se­ri­ously.

“The best thing you can do, for me, is to write your own per­sonal comments or show up to a meet­ing and speak,” Robin­son said. “I won’t take forms se­ri­ously and I won’t take out of state comments se­ri­ously.”

The record is cur­rently open for plan­ning com­mis­sion­ers, he said, and he does not know how they will sort through it. There will be an­other record open for the county com­mis­sion­ers, he said, af­ter the plan­ning com­mis­sion is done con­sid­er­ing the WCD.

The com­mis­sion­ers hope to have a de­ci­sion on the plan by June or July, Robin­son said.

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