• 2023 In Oxford, Maryland: A Cautionary Tale For Small Town America

    December 29, 2023
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    This multi-part article is written for everyone living in a small town in our country. It is a "year in review" with supporting documents and information about everything from Police Chiefs to the butchering of a shoreline. Even if you live in Oxford and think you know, you'll find out what you didn't know.

    Town Commissioners and Administration from Left to Right: Matt Ozman, Maintenance Supervisor, Lindsey Ryan, Town Attorney, Susan Delean Botkin, appointed Town Commissioner, Tom Costigan, Commission President, Katrina Greer, Commissioner, Cheryl Lewis, Town Manager, Eric Kellner, Chief of Police.

    For the sake of full disclosure, the writer of this article has been called a "gadfly," "polarizing", and a member of "that bunch" of people in Oxford, Maryland who won't stop asking questions and asking for accountability. If that's what it takes to get the truth out, so be it. Read at your own risk.

    If you live in a small town in the United States, you should pay attention to what is going on in Oxford, Maryland.

    Oxford is a beautiful little town of approximately 700 residents on Maryland's Eastern Shore. It was once touted as the "Colonial Capital of Maryland." In the beginning, the town was built around shipping and the seafood industry. Its population was working class watermen, people working in seafood processing and shipping etc. The population remained mainly working class until the mid-60's when the town's quiet, non-commercial beauty (and a new Bay Bridge) brought people to Oxford from the other side of the Bay. They spent their money on expensive homes and property along the waterfront and the town's beautiful Strand. Many commuted to their former cities to work.

    The town has always been known for a small town feel and was governed by a group of Commissioners, many of whom were natives or long-term citizens of the town. The Town Clerk was also from the town and the police chief was local. The citizens trusted their town government. After all, those in office were one of them.

    Sometime in the early 2000's, things started to change. Lawyers and developers from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. started settling in Oxford in droves. Some loved the town and its people for what it was, who they were. Others wanted to gain control, change it, and make it like the place they left. And they started to do just that. They looked at St. Michaels and other tourist trap towns and wanted Oxford to be the same.

    A new town clerk was hired to replace a beloved town clerk who retired. New Commissioners were elected, some local, some transplants. There were some small controversies and these issues began to become more commonplace.

    Still, many of the citizens of the town didn't notice. They thought things would be like they always had been.

    Then the pandemic hit in 2020 and town bureaucrats saw their chance. The Governor of Maryland made wholesale closures of small businesses and implemented ridiculous rules regarding distancing, masks, etc. If the bureaucrats could scare the elderly residents of the town and tell them that the only way to protect them from Covid was to give control to one person who would shut the town down and create arbitrary closures of shorelines, dog parks, and other outdoor venues that didn't need restriction, then that person could solidify power and influence. The padlocks on the outdoor dog park fence were a symbol of the power that one town employee suddenly seized while elected officials nodded their heads in impotent agreement.

    Citizens started noticing. But, they were still too busy living their lives to get involved.

    Then, in 2023, a series of events took place that put the citizens of Oxford on notice, "Get involved or lose your town." A seismic event occurred that revealed the cracks in the town's seemingly calm governance and violated the trust of the citizens. It's a tale we will tell through town minutes, comments on town meetings, and articles written about the events.

    1/10/23- The year started out strangely. I have heard of officials participating in meetings virtually, but I have never heard of a sitting Commissioner, much less the President of Commissioners, attending virtually and saying he would not be voting during the meeting. This was a meeting where Town Clerk Cheryl Lewis submitted the preferred contractor for what is being called the "Shoreline Improvement Project." This contractor, Underwood and Associates had already gotten the bid for the first part of the project which was designed back in 2018. Apparently, two contractors bid on this phase of the project. The second bidder was not named in the minutes. This project would come back and haunt the town in just eight short months. The bid was approved. From the minutes, "Jaramillo (President of the Commissioners) expressed his support for this project and the Underwood bid, as supported by their experience, but noted that he would not be voting." Was this an abstention? Why didn't he vote? Was there a conflict of interest? Shouldn't this be explained?

    The Commissioners went into closed session right after this meeting, which seems prophetic as we look back on what would happen in just a few short weeks. Did Commissioner Jaramillo also decline to vote in this closed session?

    This note is attached to the bottom of these town minutes. It's important because we won't see that notice on all other closed meeting sessions.

    In accordance with Section 10-508(d) of the State Government Article of the Maryland Annotated Code, a written statement of the closed session is attached to the official minutes of the Commissioners of Oxford and maintained in the minute book in the Town Office.”

    January 24, 2023 - The most notable thing about this meeting is that the Commissioners went into a closed meeting afterwards:

    "With no further business, Commission President Jaramillo motion to close the meeting and go into closed session to discuss a personnel matter, Commissioner Costigan seconded the motion, all were in favor and the meeting adjourned into closed session at 6:16 pm."

    Strangely, the note regarding closed meetings was not attached to this set of minutes. And, apparently, Commissioner Jaramillo WAS voting in this meeting.

    On February 6, 2023, an event occurred that turned the town upside and woke citizens up. Long time Police Chief Patrick Maxwell suddenly retired, even though he had told people he would not be retiring for at least six more years. His comment about the situation? "No comment."

    Everyone knew something was wrong. He had been a policeman/Chief in our town for decades, lived in town, and was respected and trusted by almost everybody. And, according to officials, there were no blemishes on his record.

    Citizens started asking questions; town officials refused to answer them. They were likely advised by their lawyer to take that approach. Unfortunately for them, it made everything so much worse. Here is an article about how things happened. The article contains events from several meetings after that date:

    Fighting Back in a Small Town – Radio Free Oxford

    Strangely, while Town Meetings are held the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, there was no meeting the second Tuesday of February 2023. No reason was given, but it seemed the controversy over the sudden "retirement" of the longtime Oxford police chief scared the Commissioners and forced them to cancel the meeting.

    February 28, 2023 - This meeting had to be held at the local community center since so many people were planning to attend. Over 300 people did attend, filling up the chairs, lining the walls and entry way of the Community Center "auditorium." Some even lined up outside to get a chance to speak about the sudden retirement of Chief Maxwell and other topics. There were rich, middle class, fixed income, black, white, Democrat, Republican, locals and "come here's"etc. The energy in the Community Center that evening was electric, buzzing with questions, anger, and outright disgust of hundreds of people who knew something was rotten in Oxford. Meanwhile, the Commissioners, again on the advice of their town lawyer, sat in front stone faced except for the occasional smirk on Commissioner Jaramillo's face. Here are the published minutes:

    *Special Note: Someone should hire a proofreader for town minutes. I have never seen so many glaring grammar and spelling errors in official documents in my life.

    Of note was misinformation about Chief Maxwell's retirement. The Commissioners knew they already had chosen a replacement even though they said they hadn't. The hiring was something that was disclosed one day after the "retirement" of the Chief. The town hired a new Chief with no job posting, no interviews, nothing.

    The letters and emails posted at the end of the above minutes were supposed to be read aloud by the Town Lawyer, but she chickened out at the meeting saying it was "too loud" for her to be heard. Strange how a lawyer, who supposedly has participated in court cases in her career, was unable to quiet a crowd or at least talk over them with a microphone.

    People left the meeting more frustrated than ever, especially after hearing that the new Police Chief had already been hired without a public posting or interviews, much the same way as the Town Manager's daughter was hired without posting or interviews years ago.

    The citizens were beginning to see not only the flaws in the narrative of events put forth by the Commissioners, Town Manager, and lawyer, but also the glaring lack of transparency.

    March 13, 2023-Several Commissioners stated that they thought the furor over the sudden retirement of Oxford's Chief of Police would die down after 72 hours. This meeting was proof that it had not. Although the Commissioners and the Town Manager had time to rally their forever supporters and devotees, approximately 200 people filled the meeting room in the Oxford Fire Department and most of them still had questions and were still angry over the lack of transparency and ethics in the town's government.

    The first part of this meeting was spent introducing the new Oxford "Chief" of Police, Eric Kellner, with a list of his saintly characteristics, but there were some very interesting disclosures regarding the salaries of staff and the plan flood prevention strategy in the town. There was a "love letter" from one Commissioner to the Town Manager, an inquiry regarding the questionable one-person financial management of the town, and a hissy fit by a long-time local judge.

    Three of these issues; flood prevention, staff hiring and salaries, and the one-person financial management of the town, would become pivotal in alerting citizens that something was deeply wrong in Oxford, and it began at the Town Office.

    Here are the minutes from that meeting:

    Some of the most important points of this meeting were in the responses to the written questions asked by citizens.

    Annual Audits: Citizens questioned the fact that ONE person in the town office controlled the town's finances. Here was the official response: " The Town of Oxford is audited annually by a qualified accounting firm, after which a Financial Report is prepared, and in years when federal grant or loan funding is used, a secondary Single Audit Financial Report is prepared to assure compliant use of federal funds. Annually these Financial Report are provided to the Maryland Legislative Services as required by law, along with forwarding to all lenders/grant funders, including the Maryland Dept. of Environment, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control & Prevention, Shore United Bank, and, when requested, USDA Rural Development. The Town has been audited annually since 1940 and is currently compliant with a completed and submitted FY 2022 audit. "

    This is a lie of omission as noted in this article:

    Town Of Oxford Ignores Seven Years Of Financial Auditor's Concerns - Easton Gazette

    Hiring Practices: The response to this question really seemed to raise the hackles of the Town Manager and her crew. How dare anyone question her hiring her daughter for an $86,000 a year job? Here is the town's response with our comments in italics:

    " When seeking personnel to fill open positions for the Town of Oxford, the opportunity to
    apply for all positions is published on Indeed.com, the highest traffic job website in the US. All
    supervisory/department positions are interviewed and hired by the Commissioners of Oxford, entry level
    positions are interviewed by two supervisors and hired upon recommendation to and approval by the
    Commissioners of Oxford. All employee compensation is approved by the Commissioners of Oxford."

    It's cute that they posted on Indeed.com especially when they knew that no one on that site had a snowball's chance in hell of getting the "town planner" job that was given to the Town Manager's daughter. They don't say that applicants were interviewed, but tried to make us believe that that this is always what happens. Not true. Having the Commissioners who have professed their long-time love and adoration of the Town Manager approve that hiring meant nothing. It was one more example of how the Town of Oxford was operating on a "quid pro quo" basis for many years.


    "With specific reference to the Police Department, a post seeking officers was published on Indeed in
    February of 2022, and was posted on the town website and Facebook Page at the same time, along with newspaper advertising first in the Star Democrat, then in all eastern shore newspapers owned by the
    Chesapeake Publishing. The opportunity to apply for a Police position is still posted on the town website,
    as the town has been actively seeking applicants for the last year."

    When people parse words in order to lie, they think that others will miss what they actually said. Notice that the post for "officers" on the Facebook page, in the Star Democrat and other Eastern Shore newspapers was NOT a post seeking a Police Chief, a position that is very different in pay and qualifications from just a police officer. We have firsthand knowledge that the Police Chief was NOT hired via a posting. Another lie by the town.

    "With regards to questions about personnel issues, interviews, discussions, reprimands, and personal
    information provided by applicants and employees, this information is privileged and confidential and
    will not be shared to protect the individual employees who apply, serve, or who have served this town."

    This last statement in the minutes is included because it is just a big middle finger to the citizens. It's a statement by the Town Office and the Commissioners at the time that they will do whatever they want, pay whatever they want, hire whoever they want, and fire whoever they want and the citizens can go pound sand. The sudden retirement of the Police Chief was not the first time this personnel strategy was employed. Ask the previous Head of Town Maintenance.

    At the very end of those minutes there is a list of "accomplishments" by Town Manager Lewis. First, I think this will be a great resume for her when she applies for another job. Also remember that just because you are awarded grant funds, that does not mean those funds are needed, productive, or what the town wants. If you want a good example, visit the Oxford Strand these days and see what a mess that is and how negatively it is being received by the citizens of Oxford. Most important, remember this when you are talking about federal, state and NGO grants regarding local administration of the grant:

    "Local governments spend about 7% of their grants on administration. Federal and state grant agencies spend just over 10%. And non-profit respondents to our survey report spending about 9%."

    "grantors spend more than recipients—an average of 10.3% of the grant is spent by grantors, versus 9.3% spent by recipients.."

    We Know Almost Nothing About the Costs of Grant Administration - Government Executive (govexec.com)

    That's a lot of money when you talk about million-dollar grants. Where do you think it goes?

    There were Public Information Requests for the line-item budgets of some of the grants listed. The town replied that they didn't have the staff or time to copy the information requested. When an offer was made to come in and copy the documents thus relieving staff of that duty, it was denied.

    One wonders why.

    Our next installment will cover the attempt of town officials to nullify an election and the fight to make sure that never happens again as well as other key issues. Stay tuned!

    As a reference for what can happen when the people fight back, visit this link for Red, White and Blueprint, created by a group of citizens in California who fought to get their county back.

    Red White & Blueprint (rwabp.com)

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    Author

    Jan Greenhawk

    Jan Greenhawk is a former teacher and school administrator for over thirty years. She has two grown children and lives with her husband in Maryland. She also spent over twenty-five years coaching/judging gymnastics and coaching women’s softball.
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    Joe Albero

    Good article! I’ll copy that!

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