ST. MICHAELS — The Commissioners of St. Michaels argued with residents and business owners during a tense public meeting on Sept. 7 over a proposed new policy that would impose fees on small businesses and implement a registration list run by the town.
The fighting got so intense that the commissioners had to cut off the livestream of the Zoom video and abruptly end the meeting.
An initial clash over the business registration list ballooned into residents picking a bone with the town over recent issues such as the firing of longtime town manager Jean Weisman and the "new direction" for St. Michaels that the commissioners have discussed in recent months.
"You're not being transparent with the people of the town or the businesses," said Paulette Florio, a resident and vocal activist against the latest group of town commissioners. "You guys are not talking about what the direction of the town is."
Commissioners pointed out that they have posted information on their website, while Aida Khalil, the newest member of the commission, responded that there was "no ulterior plan behind the scenes" and residents should not be skeptical about a new direction.
"There's no underground group that is trying to rock this town, or however people want to phrase it. We are trying to work together with this community, step by step. People need to communicate — we are not here to attack anybody," said Khalil. "This town has gotten a reputation for being mean. ... I'm asking for everyone to stop. This town has gotten ugly. People are talking about our town."
Commissioner David Breimhurst said St. Michaels only wanted to take the town "in a new direction administratively" before he was accused by Florio and another resident of firing Weisman to save money — which led to people shouting over each other and then a sudden cut off of the Zoom feed.
The commissioners are moving to overhaul the town administration system as they look to trim government expenses and better balance resident life with local businesses and the tourism that St. Michaels is known for. The town has already slashed the advertising budget by $50,000 and is holding another $60,000 in reserve.
Instituting a business registration list is part of the commissioners broader push for more accountability and transparency, but the move stoked flames among the public.
The commissioners will appoint a town employee to compile a comprehensive list of all businesses in town in order to track them, ensure building codes are up to date, and keep tabs on any potential violations. A $100 fee on businesses would cover town expenses to create and update that list.
Sidney Davenport-Trond, the owner of Gourmet by the Bay, said the list was unnecessary because businesses already register with the county for a license, and are inspected by the health department and the department of permits and inspections for building codes.
"There is record and we do have to carry liability insurance and provide all of that," she said. "So what is this?"
Debra Alms, the owner of Hambleton Inn, pushed back against the idea that the county should be the only ones with information on local businesses.
"A lot of (these) things, the town needs to look at and regulate. It's not only a county issue," she said. "The town needs to be aware."
According to DuPont, about 134 businesses are located in St. Michaels, but there could be even more. It's difficult to keep track of landlords and those who rent out homes as Airbnbs, a potential hurdle for the town as it seeks a comprehensive and complete registration list.
Still others remain skeptical because the police department keeps a tab on businesses, too. They suggested that the town should research the county licenses and work with the police instead of creating another list and charging businesses more fees.
Davenport-Trond took issue with the town "charging the businesses who have been here for over 20 years."
"If you want information, get information. But to charge another fee on top of everything else seems ridiculous," she said. "I'm pretty sure everybody knows who we are."
Compiling a business registration list would require a thorough questionnaire that would include property size, the name of the owner, and other details. A complete database would also allow the town to more easily inspect buildings and make sure they are up to code.
"In the past, there have been a lot of issues," said Khalil. And "when they were in violation, the town had no idea."
Despite pushback, Commission President Michael Bibb stood by the proposed policy.
Bibb said St. Michaels will be "moving forward in the direction we are going."
"We want businesses to register in the town so that we know," he said, but added that they "were going to take everything into advisement tonight."