There's an old Billy Joel song that has as one of its lines: "It's always been a matter of trust." That line frames 2023 in Oxford, Maryland, with one change. The word "trust" should be "mistrust."
Governments at all levels depend on the citizens that support them. As we saw in the French Revolution, once the citizens decide enough is enough, heads roll. Some governments get that support through tyranny and oppression. Their citizens are so afraid of them that they go along with the indoctrination and lies the government perpetuates. Other governments depend on a symbiotic relationship with their populations. Governments provide the basics, defense, public works, etc. Citizens provide the manpower, money and the votes that get them elected and allow them to govern.
In that type of government citizens MUST trust their government. They have to trust them to tell the truth, act ethically, and respect their opinions and wishes, especially in countries that are representative republics like the United States.
It's not just the governments of countries that need to be trusted, but the governments of states, counties, cities, and towns.
Many jurisdictions have forgotten that lately. Like con men, they lie over and over to their constituents and hide things but expect their constituents to either be blissfully ignorant or forgive and forget each lie and misdeed.
The Town of Oxford is no different. The Town has betrayed the trust of its citizens over and over. Each time the "powers that be" seem surprised when the residents push back.
Going back over the past four- or five-years' worth of Oxford town minutes and events, it's clear the town has not been very honest with citizens. Whether through outright lies or lies of omission, they haven't earned the trust of the people in town.
2023 was no different. But, this year, people had their eyes opened. In these articles, I've written about the sudden retirement of the longtime police chief, instantaneous hiring of a new chief with no advertisements or interviews, the disclosure of a family member hired by the Town Manager, and the lack of transparency regarding auditor's disclosures on yearly audits.
One Facebook poster who is a resident of the town complained that those of us pointing out this information are just being "hostile" to our Town Manager. " Perfect?" he asked. "No, but then I don't believe perfection is a standard any of us can meet."
The guy missed the point. No one expects perfection. But, when in public office, you cannot keep insulting and betraying the trust of the people you serve and expect them to stay quiet. Sooner or later, they catch on and start asking questions and demanding answers and changes.
The biggest violation of the people's trust in 2023 came with an election and an appointment.
In March, a petition was presented from 215 citizens to change the town charter so there would be special elections to fill commissioners' seats if they were vacated before the end of a commissioner's term. In the past, vacancies would be filled with appointments by the remaining commissioners. The people didn't want that to continue. The Commissioners and the town attorney took their time deciding whether to put the amendment to a referendum vote, even with a regular election on the horizon in June of 2023.
This is where things get interesting.
An election was held for an open position on the Commissioners that was created when Jim Jaramillo decided not to run again. The two candidates were Susan Delean Botkin and Katrina Greer. Greer campaigned on transparency and accountability. Botkin, who was already on the County's Board of Education and would be ending her term and commitment to the Board a year and a half early in order to be a commissioner, and who was friendly to the town office, campaigned on her experience. On June 20, 2023, Greer was elected by a solid majority despite the dirty tactics and lies by some of the "Oxford Elite.".
Then, a week later, in what seemed a startling and unbelievable coincidence, Commissioner Brian Wells (a supporter of Botkin) suddenly stepped down. This left an opening on the Commissioners. Since the referendum for the change to the Town Charter regarding vacancies had NOT been voted on yet, the Commissioners could appoint his replacement. On June 27, 2023, this happened:
President Jaramillo stated that Oxford Charter Section C5-15 instructs the remaining Commissioners, in the case of a vacancy, to appoint someone to fill that vacancy until the next regular scheduled election. Jaramillo stated the in the recent election there were two candidates with over 400 votes cast, there was a winner, and also a second place with 42% of the vote. Jaramillo felt that it was only appropriate to nominate the runner up representing 42% of the vote, Susan Delean-Botkin. Commissioner Costigan seconded the nomination, both voted in favor, and the motion carried. President Jaramillo requested Ms. Botkin come forward if she was willing to accept the nomination, after which he issued the Oath of Office to the newly appointed Commissioner. There were several members of the audience who expressed disappointment and left the meeting.
This was a pivotal moment in the destruction of ANY remaining trust the citizens of Oxford had in their government. The loser of the election, Botkin, was appointed to the Commission and was sworn in BEFORE THE WINNER OF THE ELECTION WAS. No other person in town was asked if they had interest in appointment to the position. Citizens were not asked for their opinions about this appointment. The Commissioners just did it. It was a huge slap in the face to the residents of the town who participated in the election just two weeks before.
Everyone knew why they did it. Everyone had heard before the election that Wells would be leaving soon. This was a way to nullify the election and get Botkin on the Commissioners. No wonder people walked out of the meeting. It was just one more middle finger directed toward the citizens of the town.
At the July 11,2023 meeting when she was sworn in, newly ELECTED Commissioner Greer made this statement as she abstained from the election of a President of the Commissioners:
Talbot County Clerk of the Court Kathi Duvall issued the Oath of Office to Commissioner Elect Katrina Greer.
Commissioner Delean-Botkin nominated Tom Costigan to serve as the President of the Commissioners.
Commissioner Greer seconded the motion, stated she would be abstaining and read the following statement: “The opportunity for citizens to vote is fundamental to our democracy. The Commissioners should have respected the wishes of the voters and waited until the Charter Amendment election next week There is nothing in the Charter that would have required them to act on June 27, 2023. Following the wishes of the voters builds trust in government and that is why I am abstaining.” Commissioner Costigan called for a vote, Commissioners Delean-Botkin and Costigan voted in favor of Costigan for President. Commissioner Greer abstained.
Costigan was elected President of the Commissioners.
Since then, many other questions have been asked about the financial audits of the town and why recommendations of those auditors were NOT followed, as well as the destruction of the iconic Strand Shoreline under the guise of preventing flooding. Questions are also circulating about the billing process for water and sewer bills. People want transparency but the town doesn't seem ready to provide it.
Here's what our town administration may not realize. Once trust in broken, you cannot regain it. And they have not only broken trust; they have ripped it to shreds with their manipulations and schemes. And yet, every time they are questioned or someone asks for information, they act like victims.
They are not. They need to stop the charade that they are. The only people buying that are those like the Facebook poster who either can't or don't want to see the truth.
SIDE NOTE: The next town meeting is Tuesday, January 23 at 6 p.m. in the Oxford Town Office. The firm who has been auditing the town's books since 2016 will be present. It's clear the town wants the firm to address the audit problems stated in this article:
Question is, how will they try to spin this? Citizens should come prepared with questions and comments. The Auditing Firm is UHYLLP-Certified Public Accountants.