City Council members say the mayor owes the city more than $9,000 for gasoline, permits his son to charge costly long distance calls on the city's phone bill and lets his wife run the city government.
The mayor retorts that these council members are playing 'political games," that their little scheme" will backfire and that one of them may find himself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.
It is election time in Seat Pleasant, the town with the idyllic name where politics is anything but pastoral. In fact, the situation is just about business as usual in the enclave (population 5,100) just over the District Line in Prince George's County.
As always, at the center of the action is Henry T. Arrington, the onetime guntoting mayor who has reigned over the town for eight years.
During those years the municipality has been the scene of almost constant political upheaval, beginning with a bitter mayor-verse-council feud in 1973 over who could hire city employes, moving through an unsuccessful referendum in 1976 to abolish the city government and this year featuring the battle of the gasoline bill.
At the same time, the town has struggled through problems of urbanization, including a fiscal crunch that stripped it of its tiny police force and forced cutbacks in its public works program. Now it faces the new challenge of a Metrorail stop on its southern border that is scheduled to open this fall, promising increased property values and commercial development and bringing possible problems of real estate speculation and unwanted crowds on the quiet city streets.
Those winding streets are lined with sturdy, aging brick or frame homes, the kind the real estate ads list as 3-bedroom ramblers in the $30,000 to $60,000 price range. The community encompasses everything from the boarded-up Gregory Estates housing project, where rusted appliances are strewn in the streets and the weeds reach six feet, to the pretty cul-de-sacs of the Pleasant Valley subdivision, where lawns are decorated with flower beds and little ceramic figures.
In the '60s, Seat Pleasant went through a decade of turbulent change as its population shifted from 75 percent white to 75 percent black, like many of the inner suburbs of the Prince Georg's. The '70s have been less tumultuous in terms of social change, but at least one councilman worries that with the wild politics, the abandoned Gregory Estates and the location of a Prince George's police station in its midst, the community suffers from a "bad image." Others argue that the town is "charming" and "stable" and will see a resurgence with the opening of the Metro stop.
Whoever is right, there's no denying that politics in Seat Pleasant have been in turmoil since 1973. Since that year, pro and anti-Arrington city councils have come and gone, but Arrington himself has remained the city's central and most controversial figure.
"People are sick of him now," insists Councilwoman Rosalie Jones, Arrington's most vociferous critic. But until recently, when six of the sevenmember council put together their own anti-Arrington slate to run in the Sept. 8 city election, "nobody would oppose him," she said. "He's got his name, you know, they started calling him the gun-toting mayor in '73." During a fued over his refusal to sign city pay checks for council-chosen employes.
When protesting citizens and two council members confronted him in the Town Hall parking lot, Arrington pulled a handgun to disperse the crowd. At a subsequent council meeting, the council-appointed town manager was handcuffed and arrested after shouting down Arrington and accosting the town police chief.
Still, supporters say Arrington is a low-key, intense individual, "a progressive person always trying to move the city forward."
"If he has a problem," says one political ally, "That has been basically style. He's aggressive, and maybe sometimes he does not let the democratic process take its toll."
Although the city's latest conflicts have not reached the fever pitch of past battles, the struggle is as tense.
The most recent controversy centers on the city-owned gas pumps, where the mayor, city council members and some city employees fill up their tanks.
The mayor's past due bill recently was $9,493.58, according to Jones. "We all have bills," she added, "but nothing we can't pay. This one's out of hand."
The mayor concedes he hadn't paid his bill in four years, but asserts that just last week he began making "installment" payments to bring it down. Still, he won't say how much he has paid.
"It became an issue, I suspect, because of the election," Arrington said.
Jones denies this, saying that "$9,000 is sure a lot. We could do a lot in Seat Pleasant with it." Furthermore, Jones alleges that the check Arrington's wife originally gave the city treasurer for full payment of the bill was written on a closed account.
"The account is not closed," said a seething Arrington, who says he took the check back after flyers were distributed around town showing copies of the check and saying it was invalid.
"That's privileged information," Arrington sputtered. "A council member Xeroxed copies of that check and put it in doors. Some people are susceptible to a large lawsuit."
Behind the raging check dispute is the old battle over who should control the town government and its $1.1 million budget, which, true to form, the council recently passed over the mayor's veto.
Frank J. Blackwell, the council chairman who plans to oppose Arrington for mayor in the September election, accuses Arrington of failing to provide to monitor city expenditures.
But Arrington counters that "it's the same old story" of the council wanting to control the city's day-to-day operations, although the city charter gives the mayor that power.
For their part, the citizens watch in wonder.
"Sometimes council meetings do get pretty . . . heated," said one concerned citizen. "I always make sure to sit next to the back door."
And Ralph Brown, a D.C. police sergeant who recently became interested in the Seat Pleasant government, believes that though "Arrington has a lot of controversy, he is the most knowledgeable person around. I'm not saying he's the best," Brown cautioned. "But sometimes you pick the best thing running. Sometimes you pick the best of two evils."