Bruchey's phone defense lacks credibility

April 22, 1999

In late March, The Herald-Mail did a story about Hagerstown Mayor Bob Bruchey's cell phone use. Taxpayers were charged $1,330 for the service in 1998, but the reason for many of those calls was a mystery because Bruchey blacked out the numbers on 43 percent of every one listed on the bills.

For some of our readers, the front-page play given to a story in which the amount involved was minimal was overkill. Perhaps they've forgotten the expense-account flap that drove the city's former economic-development director out of office not too many years ago, after it was discovered he lacked receipts for budgeted expenses. Or perhaps they hadn't considered the possibility that The Herald-Mail's scrutiny of small expenses deters some officials who might otherwise be tempted to go hog wild on the taxpayers' dime.

In a recent letter to the editor, Bruchey defended his blacking out of the names on the bill, saying that not everyone who calls him wants to see their name in the newspaper, just because they've expressed a concerned or a point of view about a city issue. That's a legitimate subject for discussion; Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening and The Washington Post have debated whether his appointment calendar is a matter of public record.


But the mayor forfeited any sympathy I might have given him back in January, when he agreed to a series of closed budget deliberations. More than $775,000 was cut in those sessions, resulting in a hike in the city's garbage-collection fees and a reduction in service.

Now, pardon me if I'm a little skeptical about the mayor's method of gathering public input. Listening to so-far unidentified callers on a taxpayer-funded cell phone is OK, but not to citizens speaking at open public meetings on the budget? If and when I get a satisfactory answer to that question, I might reconsider the the dubious proposition that press scrutiny of public officials' expenses is overkill.

Many people in and out of The Herald-Mail Company have asked why there's been no editorial comment about a story written earlier this month about Hagterstown Councilmember Susan Saum-Wicklein, whose jewelry business, it was discovered, didn't have the required business license, and hadn't paid Maryland sales taxes for several months.

It's my fault, I must admit. Writing anything now seems like piling on, since I encouraged her to run for another term on the council back in 1997, despite an attempt by NationsBank to foreclose on the family's downtown jewelry store. I was assured then by a mutual friend whose word I greatly respect that it was all a misunderstanding, that the payments on the loan had been made faithfully but not posted by the bank, and that no other unpleasant surprises were ahead.

And so I wrote a column, recommending that she seek a third term because of her record, particularly in the area of tourism and because of her willingness to come to the defense of city employees she felt were being treated unfairly. Most elected officials, I said then, are quite willing to let underlings take the heat when government screws up.

Saum-Wicklein's accomplishments - bringing in the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites and helping to reorganize the Washington County Convention and Visitors' Bureau - were things of substance that Hagerstown needed to do if it was ever going to capitilize on its Civil War history.

The voters apparently agreed, giving her a 76-vote margin of victory in an election in which fewer than 30 percent of the city's eligible voters turned out. But her troubles continued.

The following year, the family business, Saum's Credit Jewelers, succumbed to financial pressure and its assets were sold to pay creditors. She continued doing business downtown as The Jeweler's Daughter and was charged with writing a $2,365 bad check to a supplier, which she blamed on her inattention to the account in the middle of the Christmas season.

"There was no malicious intent. It just happened," she said.

The check was paid and the charges were placed on the inactive docket this past February.

Earlier this month, The Herald-Mail found that Saum-Wicklein's business didn't have the required business license and sales tax license, both of which she obtained a day after the paper began making inquiries.

Saum-Wicklein told me this week that if she had ever been derelict in her duties as a member of the council, or had failed to represent her constituents, she would expect criticism from the paper. Her private business dealings are separate, she said, and shouldn't be a subject for comment.

She has to say more than that on the license matter, it seems to me, if she wants to retain her credibility, just as Mary Wilfong had to explain during the last school board election why her religious beliefs had prevented her from voting before she ran for office. Wilfong went on to win, and by all reports is becoming a good addition to the school board. Saum-Wicklein could do worse than follow her example.

Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

The Herald-Mail Articles