Public comments on WCD called into question
Critics say record on WCD is skewed, spammed with form letters
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“I demand that the letter containing my name and address be withdrawn immediately,” Maddox said.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.