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Council members still at odds over utility rate changes

By KATIE FITZPATRICK

Staff writer

The Board of Elections in Chesapeake Beach has issued recertified results stating that the petition started by a group of residents to appeal the flat rate utility rate structure adopted earlier this year was unsuccessful.

After conducting a recount of the petition submissions, the elections board found that one of the petitions submitted did not have a signature on it, according to the recertified publication of the petition results signed Aug. 23 by the three board members.

During the Aug. 15 council meeting, council member Jeff Krahling said he went over the petition results with elections board members and found that one of the submitted petitions was not signed. Board member Ron Draper, who was at that meeting, said the board would look into the issue.

The elections board then conducted a recount of the petition’s signatures and discovered a mistake they made concerning a single petition entry, which should not have been accepted due to missing content, according to the recertified results. With the adjustment, the petition only collected 788 signatures and was unsuccessful in its goal to require a special election for a public vote, according to the recertified results publication.

Mayor Bruce Wahl said Monday afternoon there is “controversy” as to whether the elections board has the authority to “revise their count.” He said the attorney who advises the elections board “says that the petition drive failed” based on the recertified results, while the town attorney is advising that if the petition were to be challenged after the initial findings, it needed to be done in Calvert County Circuit Court, and the deadline to do that has passed.

According to the town charter, section C-604 states that the responsibilities of Board of Elections members include “conducting recounts, adjudicating challenges and election contests” and “conducting recounts.”

Section C-607 of the town charter states that the elections board “shall be responsible for administering and determining all election controversies, including challenges and recounts. If any person is aggrieved by a final action or final determination of the board of elections, such person may appeal to the Circuit Court for Calvert County within thirty days of the action or decision.”

Petition sponsor Wesley Donovan said in a phone interview Tuesday morning he does not believe the recertified results are valid because the appeal was not made within 30 days to the circuit court.

“In my mind, the petition passed,” Donovan said, adding that the flat rate of $15.56 per thousand gallons of both water and sewer “is the highest rate they could pass, and that’s what they did. To me, that’s just wrong to everyone that lives in Chesapeake Beach, and that was the whole purpose of the petition, that there were other options and they chose to ignore it.”

The petition was started by a group of Chesapeake Beach citizens to appeal the flat rate structure, which they believed charged users “too much too fast,” adopted in June. The flat rate structure charges users $11.28 per thousand gallons of sewer used and $4.28 per thousand gallons of water used quarterly. Council members Valerie Beaudin, Krahling, Eric Reinhardt and Pat “Irish” Mahoney voted in favor of adopting the structure, council member Bob Carpenter voted against it and council member Stewart Cumbo abstained from voting.

The group needed to turn in the petition containing 20 percent of qualified voters of the town by July 21. Out of the 3,943 registered voters in the town, the Board of Elections initially qualified 789 of the submitted 1,093 petition signatures, which is exactly 20 percent.

This suspended the flat rate structure, forcing the council to either hold a special election or introduce an ordinance for a new rate structure. The council could not come to an agreement during its Aug. 15 meeting on a date for the special election for residents to vote on whether they wanted to keep the flat rate structure, and instead held an emergency meeting Aug. 19 to put together a new rate structure. At that work session, the council came to a consensus regarding an amendment to the utility budget ordinance and rate structure.

By majority straw vote, the council indicated it would be willing to amend the utility budget ordinance to include a $638,000 grant from the general fund budget and to remove $294,625 from reserve fund contribution expenditures. The council also indicated a willingness to include a $10 administrative charge for zero users only as part of the utility structure. This would allow the utility rates to be $6.83 per 1,000 gallons of sewer used and $2.35 per 1,000 gallons of water used.

Wahl held a special town meeting Monday night to introduce ordinances to make the aforementioned changes agreed upon by the council, but half of the council did not show up. The meeting was called to order and promptly adjourned after two minutes because the council did not have a quorum.

“Several of the council members have notified me … that since the Board of Elections attorney said the petition drive failed, they didn’t see any reason to have this meeting tonight,” Wahl said Monday morning.

Beaudin, Krahling and Reinhardt did not attend the meeting.

“I think the three members that didn’t show did a real disservice to the citizens of the town,” Donovan said Tuesday morning. “It’s really sad that they’re making this a political football. Ultimately, who gets hurt is everyone in town.”

Beaudin, in a phone interview Monday, said she was not attending the meeting because there was “no reason to have this meeting.” She said since the petition was unsuccessful, the uniform, flat rate structure approved in June is in effect.

“The Board of Elections has reissued the results, and as far as I’m concerned, those results ought to be honored,” she said. “… I am representing those 80 percent plus one members of the qualifying Chesapeake Beach voting public that decided not to sign the petition in my decision to continue to support the Board of Elections’ action.”

Krahling said he did not attend the meeting because the elections board corrected the error of counting an unsigned petition after he pointed it out.

Reinhardt also said Monday he was not attending the meeting because it was being held to “introduce an ordinance that is not needed.”

“The Board of Elections issued a revised count of the referendum vote for accuracy, and the accurate vote count is short of the threshold that would require a referendum election,” Reinhardt said. “… So, it’s in my view that there’s no need for a special meeting to introduce an ordinance to take the place of an ordinance that already exists and is legal.”

Wahl said had the ordinances been introduced Monday and passed during the town’s Sept. 19 meeting, “it would have reduced everyone’s water and sewer bills by a third for at least this year” and also would have disposed of the “petition drive controversy.”

After Monday night’s meeting was adjourned, Carpenter asked whether the new ordinances could be introduced at the Sept. 19 meeting. Wahl said they could as emergency ordinances, but they would then have to be passed with yea votes from five of the six council members.

kfitzpatrick@somdnews.com