Experts say the most important thing to remember in a hostage situation is to not attempt to negotiate or argue with the hostage taker.
They also recommend against making threats, demands or personal attacks as a means to diffuse the situation.
On Thursday, the Aberdeen City Council got about half the guidelines right – avoiding direct confrontation with the man holding its future hostage, but at the same time laying into him with a savage display of public repugnance.
You see, as of Wednesday afternoon, would-be council candidate Steve Johnson and his team of lawyers and political advisors effectively took the Aberdeen election hostage.
During a hastily arranged special session of the city council Thursday afternoon, the mayor and four council members – each incumbents seeking re-election – reacted emotionally to word that Aberdeen’s Nov. 6 municipal election is almost certain to be postponed.
“It appears there’s not going to be any way to have the election on time,” Mayor S. Fred Simmons solemnly announced to a sparse crowd of city officials, interested parties and reporters Thursday.
The response was immediate and intense from those who only learned of the special session an hour or so before it convened and were unsure of its purpose until Simmons spoke.
“You’re kidding!” shouted a flabbergasted councilman Ron Kupferman. “That’s incredible.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” councilwoman Ruth Elliott added.
In brief: Johnson, chairman of the city’s Economic Development Commission, auxiliary police officer and local business owner, filed to run for city council even though there were questions about which of two properties – one in Aberdeen and another in Perryman – was his residence and which was his office. Johnson’s candidacy was invalidated by the city Board of Elections on Oct. 8. The city council alleges Johnson should have appealed the election board’s invalidation to the city Board of Appeals, which just so happens to be another role of the city council. Instead he took the matter straight to the Harford County Circuit Court. Johnson filed suit on Oct. 16, appeared before Judge Steve Waldron on Oct. 17 and was granted a postponement of the election until his residency can be sorted out. The purpose of Thursday’s meeting, the latter part of which was closed to the public so the council could receive legal advice, was to determine whether it should, as the Board of Appeals, decide Johnson’s candidacy or allow Waldron and the Circuit Court to proceed with the matter.
While Simmons said it would be at least a 60-day delay in the election, city council president Mike Hiob let the full gravity of the situation sink in when he said he understands the process could take a “series of months.”
During the public portion of the meeting, the city clerk read the official reasons why the Aberdeen Board of Elections, during an Oct. 8 conference call, decided not to validate Johnson’s candidacy. I’ve taken the liberty of organizing those reasons here (adding a couple of my own) into an easy to comprehend format.
The Top Ten Reasons Johnson’s Aberdeen Election Candidacy May Be Invalidated
10. The city previously presented a Community Legacy Grant to Johnson through his Perryman address
9. The state Department of Assessments and Taxation lists the mailing address for Johnson’s Aberdeen address as his Perryman address
8. City water and sewer bills for Johnson’s properties are mailed to his Perryman address
7. Johnson received a Homestead Property Tax credit on his Perryman address. That tax credit can only be applied to one’s primary residence
6. The mailing address for Johnson’s 13 Aberdeen rental properties is his Perryman address
5. The most recent Verizon phonebook lists Johnson’s Perryman address next to his phone number
4. Johnson’s driver’s license, which DOES display his Aberdeen address, had been issued on Oct. 2, 2007 – three days before the candidate filing deadline
3. The personal check Johnson used to pay his own candidate filing fee to the city listed his Perryman address
2. Johnson has been seen by numerous city council members coming to and from his Perryman “office” at all hours of the day and night
1. Johnson has aligned himself with Art Helton
Johnson himself was not present for the meeting – he showed up with his attorney and a sweat-beaded brow after the council had moved into a closed session and retired to the second-floor ‘war room’ to hash out the matter.
Even without the presence of the man they believe to be holding their personal re-election campaigns hostage, city council members spoke frankly about Johnson and his continued pursuit for candidacy, at any cost.
Some wondered why Johnson was so doggedly pursuing a spot on the ballot.
“Steve, what are you trying to prove?” Kupferman asked rhetorically. “Get a life.”
Others insinuated Johnson was knew this legal battle was coming all along.
“He knows it’s wrong, but he did it anyway,” Hiob added.
Only one person, city resident and police officer Jason Neidig, stood and addressed the council. Neidig, who works for city council candidate Rick Denu’s campaign, pointed out the groundwork for such a residency-requirement conflict was laid ever since Helton, a Darlington resident, has been allowed to vote in the city.
While some council members fought to keep the session open to the public, they all begrudgingly agreed to move the deliberation upstairs and out of public view.
After about an hour of deliberation, a visibly flustered Kupferman stormed out of city hall, throwing his hands in the air and indicating he was leaving while the argument continued. A half-hour later, Elliott emerged from city hall. She said no determination had been made and the council would not open the meeting back up to the public – not even to adjourn.
Word from the Johnson camp is that his case is to appear before Judge Waldron again Friday, ostensibly to decide how to proceed based on the determination of action on the part of the Aberdeen City Council.
– Johnsons’ lawyer, while polite and quite competent, looks younger than me – a difficult feat which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. Johnson himself looked like a man in over his head who, if given the chance, might have done a few things differently.
– Elliott said it is “certainly a conflict” for the city council to determine the future of Johnson as a candidate they would all face in the election. She publicly deemed it more appropriate to leave the matter to the court.
– Elliott was also involved in a post-public session, pre-private session argument with Wetlands Golf Course owner Sam Smedley in the city hall lobby. Smedley told her none of this would have been a problem if Helton weren’t involved – a comment which elevated substantially both the hostility and voices being used by Sam and Ruth, who actually had to be separated by someone else.
– While the city council debated inside, the buzz outside city hall was about the chain-reaction of events following the postponement of the election. Questions of merit included: Whether the city election law will require all candidates’ signs to be removed BEFORE the election ever takes place; Which candidates will be hurt by a postponement because they budgeted their money and resources for a Nov. 6 peak; and What sort of public hearings are necessary since the Nov. 6 election has already been legally advertised in the local newspapers.
UPDATE: In his ongoing battle for residency/candidacy in Circuit Court Friday, Johnson effectively delayed the city’s election by at least four months.
The case of Johnson vs. the Mayor and City of Aberdeen seemed almost a relief for Judge Stephen Waldron, who had previously listened on as an attorney detailed a night in the life of an admitted Aberdeen prostitute who stole snack food from the Dollar General Store on Route 40.
Council for both sides emerged after a conference in Waldron’s chambers to a sparsely seated Bel Air courtroom Friday. Johnson’s Doogie Howser-esque attorney Joseph Creed took to the front row awaiting the Judge’s ruling. Johnson did not show up to court. Aberdeen was represented by lawyer Fred Sussman, who was hired because city attorney Elwood Stark is purportedy recovering from a hernia.
Waldron took the bench to explain he had a “lengthy” conference with both sides and discussed a number of issues, including “pit falls” and expenses associated with delaying the city’s election. He then announced the process would be turned back over to the mayor and city council.
New Timeline for Election Day: 1. Waldron said Johnson’s injunction would continue until the city makes a decision regarding his appeal. Johnson is expected to file Monday (Oct. 22) with the city and Simmons said the council would hold public hearings (at least a month-long process) following his filing. The council and mayor will have 15 days following the hearing to render a decision about his candidacy. 2. If approved by the council, Johnson will be permitted on the ballot and the campaigning process will start anew, as to give adequate time for Johnson to get his name about town. The election would likely be held five to six weeks from that time.
3. If the council does not rule in Johnson’s favor, he may appeal back to the Circuit Court level, where Waldron would hear testimony in his case (and probably at least one more Aberdeen prostitute story that same day.)
4. Even after a Circuit Court ruling, Johnson could appeal to a higher court, further delaying the election.
– Waldron announced that both the council and mayoral election would remain connected and would both be postponed until a resolution is reached regarding Johnson’s candidacy.
– Johnson was ordered to pay a $10,000 bond as part of the injunction.
– Election signs are being pulled by candidates throughout the All-America City this weekend. Simmons had uprooted approximately 100 of his own signs by noon Saturday.
– Miller said even if a decision was rendered in November, he would postpone the election (which is driven by volunteer manpower) until after the holidays, though he doesn’t prefer a winter election because of possible inclement weather issues.
– Election expenses already total $1,500, in addition to employee and volunteer man-hours (this does not include legal expenses at the rate of God-only-knows per hour.)
– Word on the street is Johnson’s attorney intends to amend his complaint to include challenging the constitutionality of the two–year time frame used to establish residency in the city’s charter. – Perhaps the most melancholy face Friday was that of Miller (who is charged with organizing volunteers and the city’s election.) He sat in the back of the courtroom with an expression as if someone told him his mother was fat and wore combat boots.
– The earliest possible election date would be the first week in February, unless of course, Johnson withdraws his appeal. The rumor swirling after the court hearing Friday afternoon was that Johnson may, in fact, end the entire process and possibly allow the election to proceed on Nov. 6 as originally intended by withdrawing both his appeal and his intention to run for city council.