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Keedysville tensions erupt at council meeting

May 13, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

KEEDYSVILLE - Simmering tensions between some Keedysville residents and town officials erupted in name calling and finger-pointing at a town council meeting May 5.

One of the residents has called for town officials to apologize, saying the town's officers are trying to intimidate residents and stifle public discussion of issues.

The town councilman at the center of the dispute, however, said his remarks were meant to defend incumbent town officials against false statements that had been made during the election.

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"I think for the most part (the council is) glad someone stood up and said something to these people. It was an awkward situation for all concerned," said James Kerns, who was sworn in minutes before the name calling started.

But Kerns also said that he apologizes "to everyone there. People do not expect public officials to speak in that manner. By the same token, public officials are not dartboards."

Kerns tangled with Frank Shifflett, his opponent in the May 3 election, and Yvonne Hope, a Keedysville resident.

Hope said Kerns shook his finger at her and yelled at her during the meeting.

Shifflett said Kerns called him a liar and said everyone in town says he's a liar.

Kerns said Friday that to the best of his recollection he said only that people in the town say Shifflett's a liar.

"I haven't lied about anything or to anyone," Shifflett said Friday.

Mayor Ralph Taylor, who is Kerns' father-in-law, blamed the conflicts on a group of citizens who have opposed a proposed development in the Keedysville area.

"From then on we've had nothing but trouble. They come to the meetings and disrupt (them)," he said.

Taylor, 81, said that long before the May 5 Town Council meeting he had decided that when his term as mayor is up next year he will not run again. He's been mayor for 30 years.

Kerns, who retired Feb. 1 after 25 years with the Maryland State Police, won the council seat by a vote of 49-35.

The seat was open because Hope resigned March 25, saying she did not agree with how the town was being managed.

Kerns was sworn in before Hope and town resident Anne Leffler arrived at the meeting. Both women said they did not know Kerns and when they arrived, Hope said, she asked him to identify himself.

"He said if I hadn't come in so late you'd know who I was," Hope said.

Hope said she was speaking about how people shouldn't let disagreements get personal when Kerns "just jumped all over me and he did it nonstop."

Leffler said Kerns accused Hope of spreading rumors and lies about the mayor.

Later, when Hope asked about asphalt being dumped into a sinkhole in town, Kerns told her it was none of her business, she said.

"They just showed us they don't want any input to the government," Shifflett said. "They don't want you to come to the meeting and express your opinions."

Kerns and Taylor said that at one point in the meeting Hope "charged" toward the table where Kerns was sitting, so Taylor banged his gavel and ruled her out of order. Hope said she was only "approaching" the table.

In a letter dated the day after the meeting and addressed to the mayor and council, Leffler protested "the abhorrent, uncivilized behavior" of Kerns and his "ignominious, unprovoked verbal attack" on Hope and Shifflett.

"It is also inconceivable to me that each and every one of you obviously condoned his disgraceful behavior by remaining silent in the face of his onslaught, which makes each of you no better than he," the letter said.

Leffler called for town officials "to make a public personal apology" to both Hope and Shifflett.

Kerns said he would not characterize his behavior as an "attack."

"I don't have any problem with people speaking their mind or being heard on any issue," he said.

"I think what I said needed to be said to put people on notice that they're going to be held accountable for what they say," he said. "If they're not accurate it's going to be noted. You can't keep taking pot shots."

Barry Levey, husband of town clerk Donna Levey, attended the meeting and said "the tension was pretty thick there. There needs to be a middle of the road attained again in the town meetings."

"I think it was really unfortunate that this happened at the meeting and once everyone calms down maybe they can mend this little chasm because it seems so unnecessary," said Mary Robertson, another town resident at the meeting.

Kerns, 46, a town resident since 1989, noted that he is "brand new to politics" and is still learning how to be a councilman.

He also said he doesn't think the dissenters represent a majority in the town.

But Leffler, who has lived in Keedysville for seven years, interpreted the election results differently.

"I think 35 people are sending a very loud message," she said. "We're just going to take the town back. It's for everybody, not for just the elite few."

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