Bud Otis may not have been on the ballot if it wasn’t for the Monocacy River.
More specifically, he may not have made the midterm ballot to defend his seat as County Council president, if a plan for the management of the river had not stirred up public outrage — over property rights and clean water — during much of the two years before Election Day.
On July 24, Otis bowed his head into his hands, and silence filled Winchester Hall. He needed to make a decision. The vote before him was clearly split down party lines, with all the council Democrats opposed and all the Republicans in support of sending the river plan back to those who wrote it after it languished with the County Council for months.
He sent it back.
In that moment, everything changed. Residents who had threatened to vote Otis out of office instead walked out of Winchester Hall and began signing petitions in support of him as an unaffiliated candidate for County Council.
“There were several people — some really strongly Republican — that signed it, that I didn’t think would, that did,” said Edison Hatter, one of the most prolific petition circulators for Otis, who was standing on Market Street collecting signatures the night of the vote.
When a group of residents in late 2014 decided to rewrite a 1990 river management plan — which makes recommendations for recreation, agriculture and natural resource management along the Monocacy River — there was little expectation that it would become a decisive and defining part of the midterm election. Yet the events that followed Otis’ vote that evening show it clearly did.
“I think, had he not supported it [sending the plan back], I wouldn’t have helped him,” said Stephen “Buzz” Mackintosh, a Realtor who has spoken out against the river plan since it was released in 2016.
Mackintosh has known Otis for years and voted for him in the past, but he collected signatures on Otis’ behalf only after Otis voted to send the plan back to the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board.
By then, more than half of the river board’s 10 members had changed. With the turnover, the dominant voice on the board had also shifted from one of water and resource conservation to one of farms and property rights.
To many, sending the plan back meant an opportunity to make these new voices heard.
“Here’s my philosophy: If we have as a county advertised for people to serve on different commissions and boards and then we appoint them, we need to let them do their work,” Otis said in an interview in October. “So I thought it ought to go back to them, and that [I] was grossly misunderstood on this because people thought I was caving in to one side or the other. I wasn’t. I was saying ‘time out’ to both sides.”
His decision, though, came 13 days before he needed to file 1,794 signatures with the Board of Elections in support of his unaffiliated candidacy. And, short of making that decision, it’s possible he wouldn’t have made it.
Otis made it onto the ballot by a margin of 168 signatures.
In all, Otis collected 2,666 signatures, of which 704 were invalid. The county Board of Elections tells candidates to prepare for 20 to 30 percent of signatures to be invalidated — mostly due to a stringent name standard set by the state — which made Otis’ 26 percent invalidation rate average, if not a little high, said Election Director Stuart Harvey.
“It’s always better to have more than less, so you don’t have to get more signatures,” Harvey said.
When Otis submitted his first group of petitions at the end of July, however, it was clear he did not have enough signatures to get on the ballot, Harvey said.
Harvey did not know the exact date when he notified Otis there were insufficient signatures, because he verbally informed Otis rather than sending him a letter. But an Aug. 2 email from Lisa Bell, a riverfront landowner who organized opposition to the river plan for a year and a half before the vote, shows a last-minute “push to help get 300 signatures from Frederick County Registered Voters” for Otis.
“He needs our support right now ... and we need his support too to get the River Plan passed that sufficiently protects property rights!” Bell wrote in the email provided to The Frederick News-Post. “This is why we want to return the support to Mr. Otis for protecting property rights thus far, among other things — and why your petition signature matters.”
She attached the blank petition to the email, which garnered 209 signatures between July 27 and Aug. 6, a review of Otis’ petitions revealed. In all, 176 of the signatures were valid, which is greater than the margin of 168 signatures that pushed Otis onto the ballot.
Before the County Council’s vote and a flurry of petition signatures on Otis’ behalf, the Monocacy Scenic River Management Plan was considered politically toxic.
“If this passes this board, this group, these people won’t forget who voted for it in November,” Paul Allen, a Frederick County resident who served on a previous river board, said at a hearing in front of the council in June.
Distrust in the plan started in 2016, when many riverfront landowners heard of the plan for the first time. They packed the Taneytown Volunteer Fire Co. meeting room baffled by letters — notifying them of the rewrite — they said never reached them at their farms and homes. But as they began to organize in opposition to the plan, environmental groups began to rally in support of it.
Among the supporters of the plan is Matt Seubert, an Urbana resident and environmentalist who has become concerned that Otis may have had unethical conversations with Bell before the vote. He is in touch with a lawyer and drafting an ethics complaint that he plans to file with the county’s Ethics Commission.
“She’s the wife of the vice chair of the river board. That adds an extra element of perhaps impropriety,” Seubert said.
Otis, when asked by The News-Post whether he promised to vote to send the plan back to the Monocacy Scenic River Citizens Advisory Board in exchange for signatures, or if others promised him signatures in exchange for his vote, denied any “quid pro quo.”
“That is so below my dignity, it’s unbelievable,” Otis responded. “I am not bought or sold by anybody.”
Had he instead voted to approve the plan on July 24, he said in the same interview, then he was led to believe he’d be endorsed by “certain groups.” He declined to say which ones.
“I want to make a couple things very clear: I’m very protective of property rights and I think as a government we have a responsibility to protect those property rights,” Otis said. “I’m also very concerned about the quality of the water in that river.”
Power and influence
Running as unaffiliated candidates, Otis and Earl Robbins, who is running for county executive, were the only ones who needed to collect signatures to appear on the ballot. Some have questioned whether Otis should have accepted assistance from people who were intimately involved and affected by a plan in front of the County Council.
Council Vice President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D-District 3) worried that acceptance of the signatures from those opposed to the river plan in the last 13 days of the filing window came close to the “appearance of impropriety,” or as is written in the county’s ethics law, “the appearance of improper influence.”
County Attorney John Mathias said it can be a difficult standard to assess.
“It’s kind of a vague, amorphous, nebulous standard,” Mathias said.
In zoning cases, county boards are meant to be neutral and assess an application based on whether the property satisfies a set of parameters and make a decision based on those facts. The County Council, on the other hand, does not need to be neutral, and it’s appropriate in their role as legislators to seek all kinds of opinions, Mathias said, without speaking to any particular case.
Enticing people to work on an election campaign is also part of politics, Mathias said.
A review of public records and conversations with petition circulators shows Otis’ vote on July 24 did entice people to work on his behalf.
“Like so many other citizens, I appreciated Mr. Otis’ decisions and was pleased to volunteer later on in the Bud Otis ballot petition effort,” Bell said in response to questions emailed by The News-Post. “I also support other politicians, by the way, who support protecting and defending property rights.”
Bell collected 71 signatures — 62 of them valid — and Matthew Toms, a sitting member of the river board, collected 15 signatures that were all valid for Otis.
Mackintosh collected 29 signatures — 20 of them valid — and Margaret Elgin collected 20 signatures — 14 of them valid — for Otis.
They were joined by Maurice Gladhill, Rebecca Eaves, Patricia Fisher, Philip Hoagland Jr., Mark Long, Cynthia Grossnickle, Doug Kaplan, Holley Hovermale, James Glenn Bittner, Jane Young and Khalid Ahmad Asad and even two signatures from Otis himself all using the identical petition sent out in an email on Aug. 2 by Bell.
Together they found 209 people willing to support Otis on the ballot in November.
“If I were in his shoes, I don’t know that I would be so willing to accept assistance in that manner,” Keegan-Ayer said.