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Monday, October 12, 2009

Questions Surround City of Frederick Annexations

George Wenschhof

The City of Frederick, Maryland municipal election has been, on the most part, a snore up to now. The actions by incumbent Republican Mayor Jeff Holtzinger who said he was not going to run again, followed by a decision to file for reelection and ending by withdrawing from the race has been the highlight of the election.

The momentary excitement of a contested Republican mayoral primary ended when city employee Ron Tobin, who was recruited to run by some of the "good old boys", announced he was withdrawing due to health issues. As a result, Randy McClement with essentially no competition, easily won the Republican party nomination.

The Democratic primary, while having the elements of an exciting primary with newcomer Jason Judd backed by former mayor Ron Young facing another former mayor and nemesis; Jennifer Dougherty, never caught the attention of the voters. Mr. Judd ran a careful campaign and Ms. Dougherty tried to show her nice side. However, while trying to be nice, she never pointed out any differences she had on the issues with Judd.

Any major questions surrounding the recent city annexations of three farms never really surfaced during the primary campaign. I had thought this may become an issue with voters and had asked the Democratic candidates for mayor and aldermen their positions on this issue when I interviewed them live online prior to the primary on September 15.

Ms. Dougherty took a laissez faire approach to answering, pointing out the decision would be made prior to when she would take office. Mr. Judd, as has become his customary response to any question, pointed out his preference for infill development and concern for added traffic to U.S. 15, but stopped short of saying he supported or opposed the annexations.

Only Michael O'Connor, of the five Democratic aldermen to advance to the general election, stated he opposed the annexations. He went on to say he would support a petition drive, if started, to force the issue to a referendum.

As everyone now knows, the annexations were approved by the mayor and board with the county government officials unanimously in opposition, thus creating a five year moratorium on the development of these properties. Sure enough, in addition, a petition drive was started with a deadline looming of 45 days to collect signatures from 20% of the registered city voters. Interestingly, the city charter requirement of 20% will exceed the actual number of voters who turned out in the primary election.

It appears approximately 6500 verified signatures will be needed to make this the first City of Frederick annexation forced to a decision by the voters. The question as to who will verify the signatures is yet to be determined, but my guess would be the City of Frederick board of elections.

Frederick County Commissioner Kai Hagen has joined with Janet Wiles of Friends of Frederick County to spearhead the effort, even offering volunteers $1 per signature. If those in opposition could clone city activist Malgo Schmidt, they would surely meet this goal. I ran into her on Saturday and she was tirelessly talking to folks who were all signing the petition. It appeared she alone had close to 800 signatures. However, when others are asked how the effort is progressing, no one is willing to go on the record with a number with only one last week to go before the 45 days have expired.

Incumbent Mayor Jeff Holtzinger responded to the opposition by sending a letter to all registered voters asking they not sign the petition while encouraging them to get all the facts. Unfortunately, he failed to disclose in the letter it was paid for by the Developers and Owners of the properties which had been annexed.

Frederick county commissioner John "Lenny" Thompson, not wanting to be left out of such an important issue, took the time to draft de-annexation measures which he hoped the new city mayor and board would utilize upon their taking office. In effect, this action, if taken, would nullify the annexations.

Frederick County Commissioners Board President Jan Gardner added a web page to the county government website dedicated to this annexation issue and why the annexations should be denied.

Those in favor of the annexations, perhaps fearful the petition drive would be successful and this become the first city annexation put to a vote, recruited the odd coupling of former mayors and adversaries Ron Young, James Grimes and Jennifer Dougherty to pen a letter in support.

So where do the current mayoral candidates stand? In what has now become a predictable reaction, Democrat Jason Judd emailed his supporters his present position on the annexations in which he said many things, but lacked decisiveness in his statements. He did sign the petition, but stopped short of saying he personally was opposed, instead using the approach he felt this was an issue the voters should decide. The problem with this answer is the city does not govern by referendum and the mayor as executive is who is elected to make these type of decisions along with the consent of the board of aldermen.

Republican Randy McClement feels it may be an opportunity for the city to obtain some "BRAC" funds to help pay for the needed U.S. 15 interchange.

Will the petition drive be successful is a question that will be answered in a week. Will this issue have an effect on the City of Frederick election is a question that will analyzed after the November 3 general election results.

I have often wondered that with the Frederick County Commissioners in unanimous opposition that results in a five year moratorium on development of the properties, why the rush for approval? Tax benefits will not be received by the city in any large measure until development of the properties.

In three weeks the city election will conclude and a new mayor and board of aldermen will have been determined. Next year, the Frederick County Commissioners face election. By waiting a little more than one year, the newly elected city and county officials could have tackled the issues surrounding these three annexations and with county approval, the annexations could proceed in a faster manner than after five years as is the case now.

Along the way, over the next year, city and county with state staff could examine ways to incorporate regional planning into the annexation approval process by municipalities.

We all now painfully realize water and sewer capacity is not merely a local issue. Nor is the impact of traffic generated by a local development on state and federal roads. Rather than battling over who has authority in the annexation approval process, time spent by staff at all levels of government working together to develop regional impact models would appear to be time well spent.


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