The flier, placed on each of the 40 chairs at the Forest Heights Town Council meeting last month, read: "Is She The MAYOR OR MAYHEM?" It was a brazen public condemnation of the short, turbulent tenure of Joyce Beck.
The mayor, 56, walked past the chairs, past friends and foes, without casting a glance, according to those at the meeting. She had bigger problems. Beck had to preside over a meeting that would be, like so many others recently in this town of 2,600, loud, unruly and blatantly hostile.
"Sometimes I wonder how she holds her cool like she does," said Anne Reifsneider, a friend of Beck's who was at the meeting. "You can get pushed to a point until you explode."
Last week, Beck's problems worsened. The town's police chief, Michael Eubank, filed assault charges against her for allegedly slamming a door on the arm of an officer last month and for allegedly knocking over a former council member less than two weeks ago.
The day after she was served with the charges, Beck fired Eubank and appointed herself chief of the four-member force. For many residents, the stinging question on the flier had been answered.
Small-town politics can be intense affairs, involving strong personalities with deep roots in the community. For decades, Forest Heights managed to avoid that kind of turmoil and at least some of the ills of Prince George's County, which has struggled with crime, drugs and police brutality.
A town of tree-lined streets, manicured lawns and Cape Cod-style houses tucked between Indian Head Highway and the District border, Forest Heights was the sort of place where an expired tag on a parked car would prompt a knock on the door from a police officer and a gentle warning to the owner.
Now longtime neighbors are turning against one another. Council meetings have collapsed into verbal dogfights, stalling even minor decision making. Threats to shut down trash collection and police patrols have been used as bargaining chips to pass the town's budget.
"We've never had nothing like this before," said Cecelia Benton, 84, a resident for 37 years.
Beck denied the assault allegations Friday and said she has been advised by her attorney not to speak with journalists because of the charges.
Hardly anyone expected her tenure to be smooth when she was elected in May in a landslide. As a council member and longtime community activist, she had made many enemies on the council. The members found her abrasive and uncompromising and from the start challenged her ability to lead Forest Heights.
An anti-Beck Web site follows every step and every blow in the political soap opera that consumes daily conversations.
"Her whole motive is to destroy this town," said Andrea McCutcheon, 47, a resident who is participating in a campaign to oust Beck.
To supporters, Beck is an honest, straightforward crusader who pulls no punches. She is bent on reforming the council and ensuring that the town's funds are spent wisely, they said, even if that means using harsh tactics.
The infighting has become so bitter that the town's leaders are unable to agree on a plan to fix the leaking roof of the town hall.
"Must we wear raincoats to attend a meeting?" Reifsneider wrote in this month's town newsletter.
Beck has lived in Forest Heights for 32 years and has spent much of her working life in the Prince George's government in various positions, including co-chairing the county police chief's Citizens Advisory Council. She's currently the director of community capacity building for the county police department.
It was a Prince George's police officer who killed Beck's 18-year-old son, Raja, a decade ago. At the time, police said, an officer ordered Raja Beck, who was coming out of a house wearing a ski mask, to stop and drop his handgun. Beck pointed the gun at the officer, who fired several times, police said. The officer was cleared of wrongdoing.
"Anything of that nature would have some change on a mother, on her viewpoints," said Reifsneider, who helped comfort Beck.
But Beck, she added, stayed focused on her job and on her activism in the community. For example, she remained on the town's recreational council and eventually took great interest in public safety issues.
When she joined the Town Council in 2003, "she was outspoken as to what she thought was right and wrong," Reifsneider said. Beck, for example, thought the hiring of a town manager was ill advised. And after she was elected, she wanted to make sure money was spent on the town's immediate needs, such as the leaky roof.
"She's trying to reform the council in order to get the things done," Reifsneider said. "But all they do is sit down and argue."
That's why in June, Beck threatened to stop town services, including trash collection and police patrols, if the council did not settle on a $1.3 million spending plan. The tactic worked, and at the 11th hour, the council approved the budget.
At the time, she said the council members "have chosen to be spoiled little boys, blocking my ability to move on the budget and my ability to administer the business of the town."
Beck's critics paint a vastly different picture of her personality and tactics. They say she's an authoritarian with a controlling and explosive nature.
"At times, she was confrontational and temperamental," Eubank said. "I could be talking to her and all of a sudden she'd just blow up at me. She frequently would get closer than your personal safety zone would allow. It was an attempt of intimidation."
Eubank accuses Beck of slamming a door on Lt. William Waithe in a disagreement over mail delivery. Since Eubank's firing, Beck has changed the locks of the police department, located inside the town hall, employees said. She has promoted a 25-year-old officer with three years' experience to be the temporary commanding officer of the force.
Now, she will have to deal with a town mutiny of sorts.
Opponents say they are gathering a petition to remove her from office. Myles Spires Jr., a council member and opponent of Beck's, said yesterday that the town's charter allows a mayor to fire a police chief but not appoint herself to replace him. Nor can the mayor promote and demote officers, he said.
"It's a direct conflict of interest," said Spires, adding that the violation is grounds for Beck's dismissal.
He said the council has written a letter to State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) asking him to prosecute the "violation of the charter." Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for Ivey's office, said Friday that the office had not seen the letter and could not comment.
Ivey has recused his office from prosecuting the assault charges against Beck because he knows Beck and Eubank. Calvert County would handle the cases, Korionoff said.
Council members have instructed their attorney to ask the Circuit Court to relieve Beck of her duties and temporarily bar her from the town hall, Spires said.
"The residents have flooded our phones, they've just lost their minds over this, asking what are we going to do to stop this," Spires said.
For many residents, the turmoil has lowered morale in a town that once seemed bursting with it.
"It cuts straight to the heart. To think we can't get along for the best interests of the town," council member Alice Hoskins said, shaking her head as she stepped into her car at town hall. "If the leaders can't agree and get along, what can we do?"
In front of her, a green banner hung from a telephone pole, similar to others that dot the town. It reads: "Forest Heights. One Community. Many Cultures."
"I've got to go home and do some praying," Hoskins said with a sigh.
Staff writers Allison Klein and Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.