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April 28, 2005

The Mayor's Cafeteria Approach


Mayor Jennifer Dougherty's cafeteria approach in dealing with critical legal issues was revealed again in the release earlier this week of the settlement agreement between City Hall and Stewart Seal. The agreement confirms that the producing director of The Weinberg Center for The Arts was illegally fired by the mayor and Chief Operation Officer Vinnie Hughes.

Ever since the settlement with Mr. Seal became public knowledge, political pressure has been mounting on the mayor to release the details of that agreement. But she ducked and bobbed away from all questions until an opinion from the Attorney General's office said what everybody knew: the public has a right to know when public money is spent.

Back in November when Sen. David Brinkley received an opinion from the Maryland Attorney General's office, saying that the mayor's veto of the Homestead Property Tax Credit, just passed by the Board of Aldermen, was in error, she accepted it and rescinded her action.

Given those two examples, you might think Ms. Dougherty would heed advice from Maryland's highest law office in the conduct of Frederick City business. Think again.

In January, after the Board of Aldermen had approved an amendment to the Charter of The City of Frederick lowering the residency requirement for candidates for the office of mayor, the mayor vetoed the measure.

When Alderman David Lenhart, through State Senator Alex Mooney, received an assistant attorney general's opinion that she did not have the right to veto a charter amendment duly passed by the aldermen, she chose to ignore that advice, hired a lawyer to rebut the attorney general's office. When that action failed to reverse the opinion of the assistant attorney general, she still declined to rescind her veto.

This, led to the filing of an action in the Circuit Court for Frederick County to have a judge rule whether or not the mayor has the legal right to veto a charter change approved by the aldermen.

Now we have the case of Mr. Seal. All parties to that action signed a confidentiality agreement, which, according to Mr. Seal's attorney, was sought by the mayor. The mayor claims Mr. Seal asked that the settlement be sealed. But that's another matter altogether.

We have learned that Acting City Attorney Saundra Nichols, in response to a formal request for the details of the Seal settlement from The Associated Press, initiated a call to the Maryland Attorney General's office and learned that - in fact - the City of Frederick could release the agreement despite the confidentiality section.

It would seem that the mayor, in releasing this document, has again chosen to adhere to the opinion of the Attorney General's office when it would benefit her politically, just as she ignored the AG's opinion on the veto of the Charter amendment. In that case, by keeping the residency requirement at 3 years she hoped to keep former Mayor Ronald Young from challenging her in September's primary.

It isn't clear from whom she is getting her "political" legal advice, but it is clear to us that this mayor accepts or rejects legal opinion based solely on the benefit or the detriment to her own political well being.

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