The tiny town of Upper Marlboro held its regular monthly meeting last week to discuss the budget and other bits of town business. The gathering in the County Administration Building was a lively affair where the three town commissioners and residents jousted with each other, throwing less-than-friendly barbs.
"I have innumerable questions," said commissioner Jess Smith when the 1982-83 budget was brought up for discussion.
"Well, I would have expected that," said commission president Helen Wilson indignantly. Wilson is the de facto town mayor.
Later, when Smith suggested rewording a budget entry and moving it to another line, Wilson said, "Put it anywhere you want it, and you know where else you can put it."
And so it goes in Upper Marlboro.
Other residents who attended the meeting say tempers have been flaring since last summer when Smith--elected with help from the other two commissioners last year before a rift developed--sided with a group of residents who brought suit against the town and commissioners Wilson and Ruth Buck. The citizens wanted the Prince George's County Circuit Court to declare invalid the town's provisions for voter registration, which allowed citizens to sign up only during a four-hour period every two years.
In March, Circuit Court Judge Perry S. Bowen Jr. issued a consent decree that ordered the town to change its registration procedures. In addition, the judge ordered the town to reimburse the plaintiffs $396 in legal fees. He also required Buck and Wilson to give Smith keys to public town files and ordered the commissioners to reenact the 1982-83 budget because it had been improperly voted on last year.
Since the suit was settled, residents have been allowed to register during town office hours and at monthly town meetings. At the meeting last week, three people registered, including Rebecca C. Smith, 19, Smith's daughter, who was part of the suit.
"If the date hadn't been changed, I wouldn't have been able to register," Rebecca Smith said, explaining that she was attending college in Chestertown, Md.
Debbie Brown, 30, one of the chief plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said that after living in Upper Marlboro for seven years, she finally was able to register last month.
Brown said "the suit was a victory for the citizens of Upper Marlboro" and she hopes it can be a precedent for other small towns. "I really got angry when they wouldn't change the rules--it's archaic. . . . This town is run the same way it was in 1706."
Brown said many of her neighbors, both new and old residents, are reluctant to attend town meetings because they don't want to take sides and risk hard feelings with the commissioners.
The suit has caused a deep schism between many longtime residents and relative newcomers like Brown and Smith, an Upper Marlboro lawyer who has lived in the town for five years.
At last week's meeting, the commissioners determined that the lawsuit had cost the town about $6,700.
Wilson said it seemed a high price to pay because only eight people have registered since the court order and the next election for town commissioners isn't until January 1984. The town has a population of 385, and last week Wilson said 112 were registered voters.
"I think [the cost of the lawsuit] is a damn disgrace to the town of Upper Marlboro" said Albert (Doc) Cahn, an elderly Marlboro resident.
But Brown said that if the commissioners volunteered to change the old rules, it would have cost nothing. "Six-thousand dollars would not be too much to spend to get one person's right to vote in this county," she said.
At that point the room erupted as several people aired old arguments about who was to blame for the town's legal troubles.
Some residents at the meeting accused Smith and Brown of trying to intimidate them by inviting a reporter and photographer to the meeting.
Wilson, a commissioner for five years and a resident for 27, said the turmoil at the town meetings upset her. "We didn't have these problems until the carpetbaggers came," she said, referring to the newcomers.
When the budgets for the last fiscal year and the current term were discussed last week, Smith questioned numerous items, much to the consternation of Buck and Wilson, who scolded him for his sporadic attendance at meetings. "You never stay long enough to do anything or listen to us," Buck said.
Smith said some of the town's expenditures, such as a $2,400 annual salary paid to Wilson, who was acting as police clerk, were improper. But Wilson told Smith that if he thought she was going to work without pay, "You've got bats in the belfry!"
Smith admitted he may go a bit overboard and even become "obnoxious" in making his point with his fellow commissioners, but he said he is frustrated because "they are totally resistant to change." He said he believes Buck and Wilson are interested in the welfare of Upper Marlboro, but "they lack knowledge and understanding."
Smith said he would prefer not to run for another term as town commissioner. But then again, he mused, he believes it may be his "civic duty."
Wilson also said she is fed up and may not run for reelection, but hastily added, "I might change my mind if I get mad."