Smithsburg mayor ready for 1999

January 02, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

SMITHSBURG - For a police chief-turned-politician, the new year marks the time "to start being the mayor."

Mayor Thomas J. Bowers said he has spent the last seven months learning how to run a town, but his biggest challenge since taking office in May has been overcoming the ill-will spawned by a campaign laden with personal attacks.

"You don't have to like somebody to do business with them," he said. "I still get anonymous hate mail, but I just laugh at their ignorance."

Although Bowers, 48, has lived in Smithsburg in the northwestern corner of Washington County since he was 5 years old, he said some of the town's 2,000 residents resent having a mayor who is not a taxpayer.


He does not own property in town, instead renting a Water Street home, which Bowers said is a mere "stone's throw from Town Hall."

Then there's the fact that he has no political experience.

"I'm not a politician, I'm a cop," he said when he announced he would run for mayor.

Bowers is mayor during the day and a security officer at Solarex in Frederick, Md., at night.

After three years as police chief in Smithsburg, Bowers was fired in August 1997 by unanimous decision of then-Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers and the Town Council.

A popular police chief, Bowers' dismissal caused an uproar.

Town residents picketed Town Hall and circulated a petition calling for an amendment to the town charter that would allow voters to recall elected officials. That amendment has since passed.

Bowers sued the town on Sept. 29, 1997, demanding reinstatement, back pay and benefits. He claimed he wasn't given the opportunity to defend himself before being terminated.

A judge dismissed the suit on Dec. 3, 1997. Bowers appealed that ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. A decision is pending.

Bowers announced his intention to run for mayor on March 4, 1998. The head-to-head battle that ensued between Bowers and Myers divided the town. He won the May 12 election by six votes.

The town remains divided.

The plaque on the ice cream freezer in the Dixie Eatery on North Main Street reads, "A Small Town is like a Big Family."

Townspeople having lunch in the restaurant Tuesday answered questions about the head of their "family," but none would allow their names to be printed.

"It's quiet, and I think he's doing his job," said an East Water Street resident who said she voted for Bowers.

A local businessman just shook his head, saying, "Only time will tell."

On Main Street, Harold L. Boyer, owner of Boyer's Book Bank & Emporium, said the "only negative" was that the majority of the council that ousted Bowers was still in office.

A former chairman of the Smithsburg Planning and Zoning Appeals Board and a retired professor of political science at Hagerstown Community College, Boyer acknowledged there is an undercurrent of anti-Bowers sentiment still humming through the town.

In part, Boyer, who served as a county commissioner from 1970-74, attributed the rift to Bower's pending lawsuit against Smithsburg. He said the case "is still in the political gizzard of those who were in opposition" to the mayor.

"I don't see signs that it is going to be healed, but in no way is it detracting from the progress of government."

He said the police and public works departments were doing a "remarkably good" job, abolishing loitering on street corners, installing town garbage cans, upgrading the sewer system and improving a bridge.

Other local business owners declined to comment.

Former Mayor Myers said the rift has cost the town pride and money.

"I have two regrets out of what has happened," she said. "A severe division in a town that's always pulled together and had a lot of pride, and that the situation could've been prevented had one man not reverted to so many untruths, and taken responsibility for his actions."

Bowers said Myers, who served as mayor from 1994-98, "did a lot of good," but he also accused her of being power-hungry, and with micromanaging the town.

Though he said revenge motivated him to run for mayor- a campaign on which he said he spent $48, and that much only because his personal copier broke - Bowers said he was in office now for "the right reasons."

"The back needed to be broken on the way a lot of things are done here," he said. "It makes no difference to me if I wind up being a one-term mayor. It's going to change."

Change could be difficult.

Councilman Charles Slick, who was not on board when Bowers was fired, said the political divide is being aggravated by the three council members who were.

"I don't see the rift healing until possibly after the next election in about a year and-a-half," he said.

Councilman David Williams said he and council members James Cunningham and Thomas Hornbecker haven't decided whether they will run for re-election in 2000.

Until that time, Bowers and the three councilman who voted to fire him will have to work together. Approaching the end of his first year in office, the mayor said the working relationship was "going smooth."

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