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Reflecting On My Term as Mayor

Bob Preston

To create a autobiographical account of one's tenure as mayor might imply a certain inflated ego on the part of the author. But I was asked to write this article for the Mount community, so here it is. However, it must be noted at the start that since I am a professional historian I always envisioned myself writing such an article after a couple of years of research in documents of the "era," and not writing it for a journalistic deadline in a few days. So this is just a first attempt at getting some thoughts together.

In a small town, everyone has to pitch in to make it work. And in Emmitsburg, everyone (volunteer firefighters, emergency personal, etc.) does. In my case, after serving as Cub Scout Master, I decided that it was time to move on to something else. Someone suggested that I should run for the Town Council, because only few were interested in serving in the Town Government. I ran and won a seat as a Commissioner (legislator) in 1980. I didn't know anything about town government, how it worked? who did what? and why? were all mysteries to me. The first meeting included a somewhat hostile exchange between citizens complaining about dogs barking and the owner of the barking dog. Heavens, I thought, what have I got myself into.

But undeterred as the Streets Commissioner I forged ahead with a program to repair broken pavements in the town, which the town had the authority to repair and to pass the expenses along to property owners. On the day the contractor was to begin the work, I was informed the Town Council had decided not to proceed with the work. This had been decided at a part of a meeting I was not able to attend (one of our daughters was singing in the County Chorus). 

Soon thereafter the Town was sued because someone fell on a broken sidewalk in Town. The whole Town Council had to appear in court. The other members of the Town Council suggested that I should sit at the table with the Town attorney, and they would sit right behind me, supporting me all the way. About twenty minutes into the trial I looked back at the seats where the Town Council members were. The seats were empty. The Council members had left me all alone. Wow, they must really have confidence in me, I (foolishly) thought.

But the mayor himself was a wonderful person. A decent man. He had served five terms (two years each) but wanted to step down as mayor. He asked if I would run. I did. And I won. My parents had moved a few years before, after my father had retired as an engraver for John Wanamakers in Philadelphia, to Emmitsburg and my father was a very friendly person. He knew everybody in Town it seemed. I think people thought they were voting for my father, but they got me as mayor instead. Apparently I was one of the few "foreigners" -- not born in or around Emmitsburg -- to be elected mayor since the middle of the nineteenth century

But I was convinced I could handle the job (there goes that ego again). After all the former mayor had spent only a few hours a week in the Town Office. Only after I became mayor did I realize that he had conducted most of the Town's business over the butcher counter that he ran in a local grocery store. Conducting business with meat cleavers near by and with a winning personality had made him very effective. I had a full time teaching job and had history books near by. Not quite the same thing.

The Town had problems, big ones. There was a state imposed moratorium on all construction because the Town's wastewater plant was antiquated and inadequate and was polluting a stream that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay. The Town's five acre reservoir was held in place by an earthen dam that had more than 150 trees growing out of its side, meaning that one good wind storm could cause the trees to fall, pulling the earthen dam apart, the dam would burst and Emmitsburg area residents below the dam would be endangered. The dam also was holding about five million gallons more water than it was designed to hold. The State rated it the fourth most dangerous dam in Maryland. 

And Emmitsburg's Main Street had a huge hump in the middle, causing cars that parked on its side to be so tilted that gasoline ran out of their gas tanks and the cars' occupants to slip under the cars on the steep inclines that served as the parking area along Main Street. And there was no storm water drainage and no curbs on the south side of Main Street. Storm water poured into the basements of peoples' houses. Street lights were affixed to high poles that leaned precariously. And of course those sidewalks along Main street were still broken, some because of huge trees that had erupting root systems. And then there were the police.

The Town had its own three person police force. As mayor I was now Police Commissioner. One citizen came every month to the Town meeting and complained: "Where are the polish when you need them." That always confused me, because I was married to a Polish woman, and I knew where she was, so what was this guy's problem? Well of course he was talking about the "police." They were never around. Then he would complain about the police being around too much, often just cruising up and down Main Street wasting gas. We worked hard trying to improve policing in Town, cutting response time to calls.

Then one night I was convinced that our efforts were succeeding. I saw an accident that had just happened down on South Seton. "What happened down there?" I asked from some distance away. "Accident, just happened," a citizen said. "Looks like the police responded rather quickly," I said with some pride. "No, I don't think so," the citizen said. He continued: "Apparently the police had made a traffic stop and then when pulling back into traffic the policeman had caused the accident when he pulled in front of a car." "Oh," I said.

Fixing the dam was our first major project. The engineering was problematical. Of course just cutting the trees down wouldn't help because when the roots died there would be these root canals left through the dam that would cause the dam to burst. So the whole dam had to be reconstructed and raised because there were millions of gallons of water more in the dam than there should have been. The dam work was started and eventually that project was off the "to-do" list. The town would not disappear in the Great Flood of Emmitsburg.

The "no construction" moratorium remained. No growth, no nothing. A new sewer plant was needed. But no chance. The Reagan budget cuts were having their effect by 1984. Money for new local sewer treatment plants was drying up. The only exception was for proposals for "innovative" plants, whatever those were. No clue.

Then one cold February night I was on a ride-along with the police chief and he needed to stop and ask a local diary farmer something. The chief introduced me to the farmer -- Dick Weybright of Mason Dixon Farm which stretches along the Maryland and Pennsylvania borders -- and we started to talk. The chief drove off and left me with this farmer who started to explain how his entire farm was powered by electricity produced from the use of the gas created in the piles of cow dung on the farm. Well that was cool. And then he began to explain that in the summer he mixed cow dung with water and spray irrigated his farm fields with the mixture. I asked if such a method could be used to treat municipal waste. And the farmer shot back: "Of course it could, but no municipal leader in America has the 'guts' to try it." Well don't ever say that I don't have the guts to try something. Go ahead and call me stupid, for I had no idea what the farmer was talking about, but where my brains weren't, I had extra guts.

Back at the Town Office the next day I repeated the conversation to our Director of Public Works, Duke Martin, a brilliant guy. I tried to recreate the conversation, but it was difficult, because I didn't understand the process that had been explained to me. But Duke knew what I was talking about. We had our innovative sewer treatment proposal. If we could get the grant, the feds would pay for 90+% of the development of the plant. Our proposal included a series of lagoons to hold effluent (sewage), then it would be trickled over vast acreage of land. The effluent would be absorb by the grasses on the land, seep down about four feet where pipes would convey it to another lagoon and then from there the farmer who had given us the idea would spray this effluent over his fodder producing fields. Got that? I was still in a murky haze myself.

But even if we were awarded the grant, the time for planning and engineering studies and construction would mean the moratorium would remain for at least another three or four years. So still no growth.

But then one afternoon I took a call from a guy with a heavy German accent who worked for an engineer firm in Columbia, MD. After he repeated himself several ideas, for I could not understand what he was talking about, I got the distinct idea that this guy had been experimenting with "cleaning" effluent in trash cans by growing cattails in the cans. Great. This guy wanted us to fix our broken wastewater plant by putting our effluent in trash cans instead of into the stream that flowed to the Chesapeake. This engineer said he wanted to use Emmitsburg to experiment with treating sewage with cattails (creating a wetlands system). He had only experimented with the process in trash cans, and although it seemed to work, he needed an actual real municipality to try it. He had asked the State for suggestions of towns that might be interested, they told him: "Call Emmitsburg, they'll try anything."

It was time for another visit to the Duke Martin School of Ideas. He listened and understood and we had our temporary solution to our sewage problems. We would take the poorly treated effluent from our plant, pump it into a "finishing pond," about a half acre in size, that was filled with stones and had cattails growing in it. In two days the flow would go from one end to the other. When the effluent came in at the beginning it was, shall we say, brownish. After two days the effluent that flowed out of the pond -- the nasties in the effluent having been absorbed by the cattails -- was as clear as drinking water. We called the pond our Nature Assisted Sewage System (NASS Pond). The State loved it. They lifted the building moratorium partially. Emmitsburg was growing again.

At the same time, while waiting for the new plant to be built, for we had been awarded our $7M innovative grant, we convinced the State Highway Administration that our Main Street was unsafe. The hump in the middle of the road (one side of the town is higher than the other, but state road crews had for decades merely paved over Main Street and compensated for the difference in heights on either side of Main Street by raising the hump in the middle of the road) was a danger to drivers and those who parked along Main Street and couldn't get out of their cars on the upside of the hump and those on the down side of the hump got out of the car easily, for they often just fell out.

The State bought out story. Main Street was to be completely reconstructed, with new gas lamps and trees and new sidewalks and a storm water system, the whole works.

We called a special Town meeting and explained excitedly the plans for the reconstruction of Main Street to the citizens. We also explained that there was one hitch. For Main Street to have legally wide lanes, after the reconstruction there would be parking allowed only on one side of the street. But other than that, this is great news. We asked for a show of hands in support. A lesson in democracy was about to be taught to the history teacher qua mayor. The citizens said no. Parking on both sides of the street or else no new Main Street. We went back to the State and they gave in. Lesson learned: the mayor is not the CEO of the corporation known as the Town of Emmitsburg, the people are.

On the 4th of July, 1989, after three years of construction of the sewer plant and three seasons of reconstruction of Main Street, the Town held grand openings. A big celebration (Big Time, Small Town, we called it). Tours of the sewer plant were a big hit and Main Street had its ribbon cut.

Scores of people had contributed to the renaissance of Emmitsburg. A dozen Town Commissioners -- including the present mayor, Doc Carr, and the Mount's Registrar, John Gill -- and town employees and town citizens (what patience they showed through three years of Main Street being torn up) and State and County official. And of course, Duke Martin, who had the vision to see all this to fruition.

Duke Martin had shown himself to have been creative, thoughtful and bright. For years he was my partner, my brains and my friend. To demonstrate the commitment and respect I had for him there is one incident that I think says it all which occurred near the end of my tenure as mayor. In 1991, with one year to run in my fourth term, so after nine years of being mayor, I told Duke that I had decided with my family that I was not going to run again for re-election. I knew he enjoyed working with me but maybe he would not enjoy working with a subsequent mayor (we had no idea a year before the election who that would be).

So I thought I owed it to him to give him time to figure out what he wanted to do, as far as seeking other possible job opportunities. He moved on the suggestion faster than he or I ever thought possible. He, his father and his brother a couple of weeks later won the Maryland Lotto -- for $12 million. Amazingly, he promised that he would continue to work for the town until my term was up, and he did. When he finally resigned, he came to the Mount and finished his degree.

Thus in 1992 I left the mayor's office a richer man, because of the knowledge and experience I had gained. And Duke left the employ of the Town, also a richer man!

Read other articles by Bob Preston

Read Ed Houck's Recollections as Mayor of Emmitsburg