Jan Greenhawk, Editor/Easton Gazette; Writer, Editor, Radio Free Oxford
When people talk about corruption in government, most of the conversation centers around the Federal and State governments. Occasionally a county will make the news. Rarely do towns of less than 800 residents make the headlines in a negative way.
So it has been with Oxford, a small town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where I have lived for almost 50 years. If Oxford made the front page of the local news, it was generally for feel good events like Oxford Day or the July 4th Fireworks. The only bad front page news I can remember was the flooding of Isabel. Oxford was never on the front page for corruption.
Boy, how things have changed.
The Town of Oxford is run by an elected group of three commissioners who decide things like budget, hiring, town ordinances, etc. Or at least that is how it is SUPPOSED to be and has been for a very long time. There has been a Town Clerk and Town Manager in place for years. These are hired employees who serve at the will of the Commissioners and are paid by the taxpayers. They are supposed to serve the citizens. They handle scheduling of various maintenance projects, mail out monthly newsletters, handle building permits, send out bills etc. In the last few years, the position of Town Manager has apparently become much more.
As with most bureaucrats, people who take jobs like Town Manager are middle management types. They are not supposed to make decisions about ordinances, hiring, firing, and laws. They are not to act as CEO’s. But, with many people who take these jobs they find a way to worm themselves into a position to do so. They usually do it by becoming indispensable to the elected officials. They take on duties the officials don’t want. They tell officials they are there to “serve” them, not the people, and make the officials’ lives easier.
The officials comply and before you know it, you have a bureaucrat who has their tentacles in everyone, everything.
So it is in Oxford. With a Town Manager that makes nearly the same yearly salary as the Governor of Maryland, this little town has become a fiefdom. During the initial Covid scare, Oxford closed shorelines, outdoor dog parks, and restricted people to wearing masks outside within ten feet of a business. And people dared not play basketball on the town court. That was grounds for arrest. The Town, through the Town Office, used the orders of Governor Hogan as the basis for these actions but took it one step further in how different areas of the town were classified to fit his order.
To be fair, there were many in our wealthy little geriatric town who applauded these actions. They felt safe from those of us who might dare to go outside and breathe fresh air. They were truly scared of Covid.
What these actions revealed in Oxford was a huge problem. While a majority of the population was busy working, raising kids, grandkids etc. small-town tyranny was making inroads through an emboldened town office.
When the town hired a new Town Manager more than a decade ago, I’m not sure the Commissioners at the time knew what they were getting. But, in the time the Town Manager’s office has been known to slow down the work of contractors, fire long time employees without explanation, pry into people’s home improvements under FEMA and flood insurance claims and promote the change of zoning under rather arbitrary circumstances among other actions. Speak out and you might get notified that you can no longer do what you want with your own property. People in town are actually afraid of our Town Office! The Commissioners pay the Town Manager a salary of $168,000 a year, an amount that shocked citizens.
And the Town Manager hired friends and family. More on that later.
Last night, the circus that Oxford has become was well on display. Taken from the playbook of the corrupt D,C, swamp, the Commissioners of Oxford brought out a dog and pony show that would impress a propagandist in any government.
First, there was the effuse praise of the new Chief of Police. I have nothing against the man, but when a town administration has to work so hard to convince citizens that the Commissioner’s actions of “retiring” the previous Chief and hiring the new guy without adequate interviews and job postings was a good thing, there is definitely something wrong. People see it and they know that the Commissioners are blowing smoke up our behinds. Never in the past were the Commissioners so excited about the traffic stops and property checks. They barely mentioned them before. Now the only thing they didn’t do was release balloons and let confetti cascade down from the ceiling.
So, because I think it is important to detail what is going on in Oxford, I’ll divide this article into parts; lied, omissions, nepotism, and conflict of interest.
LIES: Last week I posted on Facebook about our newly hired Chief of Police and how he didn’t seem to have a radio when patrolling. I was immediately accused of lying by one of the current Town Commissioners. Funny, because the post was based on an excellent source. Even more ironic was the fact that the Town Commissioner who accused me of lying told the people of our town when he initially ran that he was not using his as possible election as Commissioner as a steppingstone to higher office. Shortly after, he changed his mind and ran for County Council. He struggled to understand why towns people were angry. He had lied to them, and they didn’t like it.
To top that off, the entire group of Commissioners and the Town Manager colluded to lie about the recent “retirement” of the town Chief of Police of 34 years and how his replacement was recruited. The former Chief of Police had confided in many townspeople in conversation for a long time that he wanted to do six more years in his position. and then retire. Suddenly, the Commissioners announce his retirement without so much as a sentence to explain. Making things worse, based on eyewitnesses, they used Talbot County Sheriff’s Department Deputies in plainclothes to escort him from the Town Office after he was notified. They took his gun and his badge.
To cover their lies after the “retirement,” the Commissioners instituted a non-disclosure agreement that they made the “retiring” Chief sign. They really tried to convince people of their lie. Then, after all the drama at the Town’s Office, they gave the Chief the usual “atta boy” farewell and even offered to recognize him at a town meeting. Few people in town believed the charade.
They said that they had advertised the position of Chief of Police for a few weeks before hiring someone to take his place. Another lie since the new Police Chief was chosen before the previous Chief/s “retirement.” How do I know? If it had been adequately advertised, people would have known about the change in policing prior to the “retirement” of the past Chief. Within two days of the “retirement” I was told by an important county official that I would be “very pleased with his replacement.” Apparently, the new “Chief” had been hired before the current Chief was “retired.” It was a case of deflection and lies that just didn’t pass muster. Faced with the citizens of the town protesting, the Commissioners went into vocal lockdown and sat silently when people asked questions.
There are more lies and deflection. It seems to be a common practice in our little town government.
OMISSION: As a former employee of the local school system, I know that public entities MUST conduct extensive advertisement and interviews before they can hire for public positions. We had always been directed to interview diverse candidates and to advertise extensively in many different ways.
The Oxford Town Commissioners cannot (or will not) supply a list or even a number of candidates interviewed for the position of Chief of Police. When asked, they play dumb. We asked about the diversity of candidates interviewed it’s crickets. The fact is they never advertised, never interviewed anyone and certainly interviewed no diverse candidates.
Omission is a great tactic in a corrupt government. If the people involved want to stonewall and keep things secret, they just don’t answer questions. They hide behind statements like ” it’s a personnel decision” and ” our lawyer has advised us not to answer.”
It is even better if your town has NO POLICIES covering hiring.
One would think that a small town like ours would not require this tactic. But when you fire and hire people on the whim of a town employee or official, omission is critical. Just sit there and avoid answering questions and maybe the citizens will leave you alone.
Then when citizens do ask question, they get shills to come out and call the ones complaining “embarrassing,” a “lynch mob” and accuse them of “medieval tactics.” Yes, it was actually said.
NEPOTISM: Lies and omission lead us to “nepotism.” Nepotism is the act of hiring one’s family members for jobs in your office or business whether they are qualified or not. It’s even better if you can give them a hefty title and salary. Seems a popular thing right now at all levels of government.
Maybe Oxford does have a hiring policy after all, since the Town Manager’s daughter was hired for a position that pays around $85000 a year. Is that the Oxford hiring policy? Family first?
That seems like a conflict of interest.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST: This is one of the most obvious problems in a small town government. Currently, a petition from over 200 residents of the town asked that an amendment be made to the town charter that would provide for elections to replace commissioners who die in office or leave office early. The three current commissioners HATE this idea. An election to replace a commissioner? That’s not how THEY want things done. They prefer that the town commissioners choose someone that they like and agree with. Someone who won’t ask for accountability or transparency.
In a town meeting last month and one on the 9th, it was clear the Commissioners don’t want to address the will of the citizens of this town and put this amendment to a vote. They even went so far as to write on the town website about the amendment and why it was so bad for the town. Talk about bias and self-serving. They will do everything they can to make sure that this amendment will never get the time of day.
It would be one thing if the town website was provided by a political group and was merely a place for political opinion. It’s not. It’s supposed to be informative in nature, not a way to sway opinion. Will their next step be to write about how they support one candidate for Commissioner over others? Nothing would surprise me.
We have an election coming up. So far, I know of three possible candidates. They need to be asked how they will assure transparency in town government and how they will take power away from an out-of-control town office. Voters need to carefully examine candidates, because some of them may merely be decoys.
We also need to know if they focus all of their attention on the Office of Town Commissioner or if they will be split between two elected offices.
Finally, I went to a town meeting Tuesday night. As I watched the three Commissioners, I was reminded of the attitudes of national officials speaking to citizens. The smirking, the visible disdain, the over hyping was thick, poisonous and saccharine all at the same time. Smokescreens and lies were everywhere. They think we don’t see.
Corruption in Oxford is as bad as that in the State and National Government. It needs to be stopped.
Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org