CAPITOL HEIGHTS

More Upheaval

The latest casualty of the ongoing power struggle in Capitol Heights is the town clerk, Sherry Tucker, who resigned last week. In a letter to town officials, she charged that they had harassed and discriminated against her, and she wrote that she felt disgust at watching "the devil at work."

Tucker, 29, did not say which official she was referring to as "the devil," but in her letter, she criticized both Mayor Vivian M. Dodson and Town Administrator Fred J. Nocente for "day to day harassment." She wrote that they had wrongly accused her of giving out confidential town information and of making mistakes when ordering office supplies.

Dodson and Nocente did not return calls for comment.

Tucker, whose annual salary was about $20,000, also is filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging harassment on the basis of sex and race. Tucker says the town ignored her complaints. In her resignation letter, she wrote: "So the games the town plays with the citizens, the councils and the employees will come to an end. I will not sit here and be humiliated or to be set-up."

Her resignation was effective Aug. 9.

Tucker joins a long list of employees who have resigned or been fired since last summer. There have been at least five secretaries and town clerks and two town administrators since May 1998.

Some council members have begun to complain about the high turnover rate. "We're in a constant state of training," council member Mark T. Stevens said.

Tucker first became angry with officials in July, when she said they turned down her request for health benefits, even though she had passed a 90-day probation period.

Town officials did not explain their decision then. But when they gave benefits to Nocente immediately upon being hired, Tucker cried foul. "Discrimination plays a part in all this because Fred Nocente comes in the door with benefits, $50,000 [salary] and the use of a town car," Tucker wrote.

Nocente was hired in July to replace Town Administrator John H. Kitchings, who was fired shortly after alleging to state prosecutors and other agencies that town officials mismanaged public money.

Last week, Maryland Assistant Attorney General Jack Schwartz sent a letter to Dodson informing her of Kitchings's latest complaint, regarding alleged violations of the Maryland Open Meetings Act on 17 occasions, and giving the town a deadline by which to respond.

Schwartz, who also is counsel to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, wrote: "The town is to file a written response to the complaint within 30 days." But, as Schwartz wrote in a letter Aug. 4 to Kitchings, the board's authority is limited: "It has no investigatory powers, no power to impose a remedy. . . . Only a court has those remedial powers." The board will issue an opinion once the town has responded.

Kitchings says the meetings in which he was fired and Nocente was hired were both illegally closed.

Nocente also served as town administrator from 1989 to 1993. He unsuccessfully sued the town in 1996 for about $50,000 in overtime pay.

Tucker was hired as a part-time clerk in March. Within a week, then-Town Administrator Kitchings said he recommended that she be hired full time. "It was agreed that she would . . . receive benefits after 90 days," Kitchings said.

Tucker had at least one supporter on the Town Council. "Sherry has a legitimate gripe," said council member Amizi L. Springs. "I was hoping that she wouldn't quit."

-- Susan Saulny

BOWIE

Development Opposed

Marietta and Ronald Murphy moved to the Longleaf subdivision in Bowie three years ago because of the sense of community the area offered.

They loved the friendly neighbors, well-kept lawns, bike paths, pristine parks and "good schools." It would be a good place, they thought, to raise a family.

But now they are thinking about moving. The reason: a planned commercial development at the nearby intersection of Route 301 and Governor Bridge Road. They fear, as do some of their neighbors, that the two superstores and restaurant slated for the site will bring too many people to the area and lead to more traffic accidents on the busy thoroughfare.

So the residents have formed a committee and hired a lawyer to protest the plan by developer Foulger Pratt. The matter, which was to be heard by the county planning board July 22, was continued until September to allow the residents and Foulger Pratt to try reach a compromise, authorities said. Foulger Pratt's representative for the project, John Austin, did not return a reporter's calls.

"We selected Bowie because of the feeling [that] families and people came first in Bowie," said Marietta Murphy, 34, a computer programmer. "We did not believe that Bowie would let commercialism rule, as other areas of Prince George's have."

The development the residents oppose would be on the east side of Route 301 and across from the Bowie Gateway Center, just south of Route 50.

Jim Cronk, Bowie's city planning director, said the site is to include a Babies R Us, an Office Depot and an Italian restaurant. Cronk said the land was previously owned by Austin.

Safety on Route 301 has caused increasing concern, Cronk said, because of heavier traffic, high speeds and mixed local and regional use of the road.

"It's one of the places [where Maryland highway officials] are talking about installing red light-running cameras," Cronk said. "The residents have a sincere concern for safety. It's a busy intersection. . . . There is lots of additional development planned, and, rightfully so, some of these homeowners are concerned about traffic safety."

Cronk said the commercial development on the east side of Route 301--already home to Home Depot and the Bowie Baysox--would total about 200,000 square feet of commercial and office space.

Total development on both sides of Route 301 at the intersection could reach almost 1 million square feet. The Bowie Gateway Center, at completion, will include more than 700,000 square feet of space, Cronk said.

Bowie Gateway Center has proved popular with shoppers, who crowd the parking lot and stores such as Target, Borders Books, Pier 1 Imports, Staples and Kohl's on weekends. Gateway also has several sit-down restaurants and fast-food outlets.

"There is concern that stores that are proposed are not geared to serve just them in their subdivisions," Cronk said, "that they are designed to serve a more regional market."

Route 301 from Excalibur Drive to Route 50 has emerged as a popular shopping area for residents of Prince George's County and nearby Crofton in Anne Arundel. Four years ago, Wal-Mart built a store there, and others soon filled the adjoining Collington Center.

For years, residents complained of having to drive far for quality retail, and many residents of central Prince George's County have welcomed the new stores.

But others have reservations. Marietta Murphy acknowledged criticism that the new residents might have learned of the proposed commercial development near their homes by checking the master plan.

"We're not opposed to them building up there, we just don't think that what they are going to build is going to help us," she said.

-- Avis Thomas-Lester

If you have an item for Prince George's Towns, please let us know. Susan Saulny coordinates the municipal coverage. She can be reached at 301-952-2036; fax to 301-952-1397; or e-mail Saulnys@washpost.com; or write to Prince George's Towns, Prince George's Extra, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Upper Marlboro, Md. 20772.

CAPTION: Marietta Murphy and others are opposed to a proposed commercial development at Route 301 and Governor Bridge Road in Bowie.