State prosecutors and Takoma Park officials are seeking to resolve the criticism that began last September when the mayor and City Council were accused of misusing the city's newsletter by publishing their endorsement of primary election candidates.
Council members met informally last summer and decided which county, state and congressional primary candidates they wanted to endorse, and Mayor Sammie A. Abbott, editor of the Takoma Park Newsletter, wrote an article for the September issue about the candidates, urging residents to consider the candidates he and the council had endorsed.
While the fuss died down after the council adopted an editorial policy of balanced treatment of political issues, city officials said the debate has been revived by an unidentified person who has complained to the Maryland Office of the State Prosecutor and, the issue could become political fodder for city elections in November.
Assistant State Prosecutor Charles B. Frey would not disclose who questioned the legality of public officials using the tax-supported publication to list their personal choice of candidates. But to resolve the matter, state prosecutors worked out an agreement early this month with City Attorney Thomas J. Gagliardo that would formalize the council's policy statement last fall.
A subsequent letter last Wednesday from Frey to Gagliardo clarified that the agreement "addresses future activity and not past endeavors." The agreement specified that future endorsements by the mayor and council are to receive "no preferential treatment" in city-funded print.
"There is no culpability set here, no blame, no penalties, no presumption of guilt--nothing," Mayor Sammie A. Abbott said of the agreement. "It doesn't prohibit anything, it just sets the procedure for what is done."
As editor of the monthly city paper, Abbott was singled out for playing up the candidates chosen by him and the council and accused as well of using the paper to mobilize support for his favorite political causes. His supporters contend he has created a vital community newspaper in place of what had been a listing of group meetings and garbage schedules.
Abbott's editorship has been a continuing and unresolved issue for the council, but without Abbott's efforts council members and residents say it is unlikely the paper would be continued in its present form.
If all the council members sign the agreement, it would effectively end whatever legal concern still lingers from last fall's newsletter dispute, according to the document.
Frey said he could not discuss the case but said documents of this sort would need signatures from all elected city officials. He said he is not sure what action would be taken if they do not sign.
"I haven't signed it, and I'm not going to, unless there is some sort of guarantee this can't happen again," council member Joseph Faulkner said.
Faulkner said having the city's top elected official as editor is "very poor," and something that ought to be changed. "I'm not so sure the mayor could sort partisan politics out from nonpartisan."
Faulkner, who sharply criticized Abbott's editorship during the debate last fall, said he is considering running against Abbott for mayor in November's city elections.
"One thing they the council members could do is discontinue it," Faulkner said of the newsletter. "But I don't suppose that would be very popular."
He said a suggestion he made last fall, that a nonpartisan committee could be appointed to set editorial policy and operate the paper, might win a new audience now.
In the controversial September newsletter, Faulkner was pictured with Abbott and Parris Glendening, who the council endorsed for Prince George's County executive.