Politics in Riverdale Park has never been a genteel affair.
Take the meeting at a packed Town Hall on Monday night, when Mayor Guy Tiberio was called incompetent, dishonest and dictatorial for arranging the sale of a ballfield in the Prince George's County community of 6,000.
"It doesn't bother me," said Tiberio, who has served as mayor, on and off, since 1973. "This is democracy in action."
The ruckus started in late June, when an accounting error created a $217,000 hole in the town's budget. On June 21, Tiberio and the Town Council met in closed session to sell a ballfield known as the Field of Dreams (named for the 1989 Kevin Costner film) for $300,000. The buyer was Peter Spiropoulos, owner of a nearby pizza and sub shop and a friend of Tiberio's, who is expected to build homes on the site.
The sales agreement, completed without competitive bids or a public hearing, caused a furor, prompting some residents to dub the deal "Field of Schemes." The Maryland attorney general is investigating whether the council acted improperly by deciding to sell the park behind closed doors.
Opponents have gathered what they say are enough signatures to overturn the sale, but Tiberio tabled a council vote to accept the petitions last week until he can determine whether they include the names of nonresidents. Protesters said he is only trying to push the sale through without considering alternatives for making up the $217,000 deficit.
"Mayor Tiberio wants to strip this town down to nothing," said Roland Walker, who is leading the effort to halt the ballpark deal. "He sold the field without any community input."
Dannielle Glaros, a new resident, said during her testimony Monday night: "This is a quick lesson in local politics. I am really troubled by this process. There is a little lack of sincerity and honesty."
State law allows public bodies to meet privately when discussing the purchase of real estate, but not when the issue is selling public land. Tiberio, who owns an electronics business, acknowledged that the rules were "maybe a little bit bent" to complete the sale, but he characterized his accusers as "holier than thou" and said the controversy was about politics, not a ballfield for kids.
Residents said the Field of Dreams is only the latest episode in a long history of contentious politics in Riverdale Park. Much of the rancor goes back more than 30 years, as factions aligned with Tiberio and former mayor John Ferguson continue to feud.
"Ever since then, these two factions have been going after each other," said Chris Davis, Ward 1 representative on the Town Council. "We are 20 years behind the other jurisdictions because we spend so much time fighting each other. So much of people's identity is wrapped up on what side they are on."
A few years ago, two officials angered some residents by voting to demolish a line of old storefronts at Route 1 and East West Highway to build an Eckerd drugstore. Critics said it wasn't necessary because there were already six drugstores within a mile.
Contributing to the ill will was the loss of a 1976 mural at the top of the corner building. It depicted a father talking to his son on the front porch of a wood frame home. The artist was John Ford, son of Walter Ford, who served on the Riverdale Town Council for many years. Some thought that an attractive and distinctive part of the town had been scrapped for another nondescript chain drugstore.
Tiberio and Riverdale Park officials have 30 days to explain to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board why the park was sold behind closed doors. But any action the panel recommends is strictly advisory.
"The compliance board was created by statute. It was part of the Maryland Open Meetings Act, but they don't have enforcement authority," said William R. Varga, an assistant attorney general. He added that the only way the town's action can be overturned is through a judge's ruling. To save their Field of Dreams, opponents of the sale may have to go to court.
Tiberio said he's not daunted by the challenge to the town's land deal.
"This is not about the children. This is about politics and people having something to grab on to," he said.