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Smithsburg council members file ethics complaint

June 17, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

SMITHSBURG -- Members of the Smithsburg Town Council have asked the Maryland Attorney General's Office to review whether Smithsburg's mayor and town attorney acted inappropriately in regard to the commissioning of five picnic pavilions in May.

Four of the town's five council members allege in a complaint dated June 12 the work was given to a company in a way that "purposely circumvented" the town's charter.

Council members Charles "Bud" Lucassen, Jerome Martin, Donnie Souders Jr. and Dennis "Jack" Wenthe allege town attorney Charles F. Wagaman Jr. advised Mayor Mildred "Mickey" Myers to divide the project into two contracts to avoid having to advertise for bids.

Martin also filed a separate complaint against Wagaman with the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, which investigates accusations of professional misconduct by attorneys.

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Smithsburg's charter requires the town to advertise for bids for projects costing more than $10,000.

Contract documents show the town paid a total of $11,250 for the five pavilions, but it was paid as one contract for $9,000 and a second for $2,250.

The pavilions were paid for with Program Open Space grant funds left over from another project, town officials said. Myers previously said the town had to spend the funds by June 30 and would not have had time to advertise for bids.

Myers said Wednesday she was not aware of the complaint and was disappointed the council members seemed more interested in discussing the issue in the media than in town meetings.

Wagaman said he, too, was unaware of the complaints and declined to comment on them.

Myers said the picnic pavilions were commissioned in accordance with the charter and the advice of the town attorney.

She said the town never has treated Program Open Space grant projects as being subject to the charter's requirement to advertise for bids for projects costing more than $10,000. Instead, the parks commission chairman seeks the best possible quote when preparing the grant application and the town typically uses the same company that provided that quote, Myers said.

"If these council members desire to make changes in our charter, they can do so by going through the proper process," she said.

The pavilions were built by L.M. Cooper Construction of Smithsburg, a company Myers has acknowledged sometimes uses her son as a subcontractor.

Parks Commission Chairman Carlo Belella has said he did not seek prices for the picnic pavilions from any other companies.

Souders said the charter says nothing about exempting grant funding from the $10,000 rule, and state officials have told the town manager grant funding is subject to whatever guidelines are set up in the charter.

Souders said the council members decided to file the complaint because they sought backing for their push to clean up contract award procedures in the town.

"For future reference, we want to make sure we, as an elected body, are open and transparent and have fair bidding and contract practices for the town," Souders said. "We're still making this fight that the way things might have used to been, with handshakes and nods and friendly agreements -- in this day and age, you can't run a government like that."

Martin said the council members had failed in other attempts to get the mayor's attention.

He said he wasn't interested in disciplinary action against Myers or Wagaman, but hoped they would adhere to the charter and other regulations in the future.

Souders said at the council's July work session, members would begin working to adopt policies and procedures that would more explicitly govern how the town solicits bids.

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