This is the story which appeared on Page 1 of the July 19 edition of The Rising Sun Herald
by Lisa Tome
Robert C. England has been banned from coming to Rising Sun's town hall.
The ban includes preventing the 87-year-old from entering the building to pay his utility bills, something he has been doing for at least 15 years.
If he enters the building, he will be "subject to arrest," Rising Sun Police Chief Peterson said.
Town police hand delivered a letter outlining the ban to England on Wednesday, July 13.
England, who lives on E. Main St., said he was banned due to comments he made when he went to pay his water bill. He said he told Terry Bonenberger, the town administrator's wife, "that it would be nice if you would go back to Pennsylvania."
He also said he made a comment that he wondered if a Bonenbergers' home in Rising Sun would have bulletproof glass (because there is newly installed bulletproof glass in town hall). Mrs. Bonenberger is a volunteer with the town, working at the municipal office since the town's
clerical staff resigned.
The comments apparently led to the ban.
The town's letter, dated July 1, reads:
"Dear Mr. England, It is the policy of the Town of Rising Sun to provide employees and the citizens that conduct business within the offices of the Town of Rising Sun with an environment free of fear and harassment.
"Based upon your behavior during your recent visits to town hall, and statements made during the business transaction, the Mayor and Board of Commissioners find your behavior to be disruptive to the daily operations of business within the town hall.
"You are hereby informed that you are prohibited from entering the Rising Sun Town hall building. You are most certainly welcome to take advantage of the drop box for payment or online bill pay."
The letter, on Rising Sun Police Department letterhead, is signed by Mayor Travis Marion and commissioners Joe Shephard, David Warnick, Brian Leishear, and Allen Authenreath.
Although the letter is on police stationary, Chief Peterson declined comment, deferring to town board members.
One commissioner responded to emails seeking comment from all of the town's elected officials.
"The Town of Rising Sun will not comment on the specifics of the situation. But the Mayor and Commissioners feel that the statements of Mr. England are alarming and a move has been made to ensure the safety of town personnel," wrote Commissioner Brian Leishear in an email.
England is a lifelong community resident who has lived in town for 35 years. In past years, he attended some of the town commissioners' public meetings.
"Most of the town residents are unhappy with town management. To me, the ones in office now they are just puppets. They are milking the town," he said. He also stated that he finds being banned from town hall "comical."
"To me it's suspicious that he (Bonenberger) brought his wife in. This letter is ridiculous," said England.
He also said he will pay his utility bills by using the drop box in the future.
Rising Sun town officials should justify their actions
This is the editorial which appeared on Page 4 of the July 19 edition of The Rising Sun Herald.
Rising Sun resident Robert C. England can't go into town hall.
Following an exchange between him and volunteer town clerk Terry Bonenberger, wife of town administrator Calvin Bonenberger, Rising Sun officials banned him from the building.
In a letter written on police stationary and dated July 1, the 87-year-old England was told he cannot enter town hall.
Town police delivered the letter July 13. That's nearly two weeks after it was written but less than 24 hours after town commissioners and the mayor met behind closed doors.
The letter, and town officials' refusal to give a detailed justification of their actions, raise significant questions.
First, why was the letter written nearly two weeks before it was delivered?
Town officials didn't say.
Why was the letter written on police department stationary rather than the town's letterhead?
Town officials and Police Chief Chip Peterson didn't say.
Was there an investigation of the 'incident' either by Rising Sun police or an outside agency or did town officials base their decision solely on Mrs. Bonenberger's account of Mr. England's visit?
Town officials didn't say.
Was the town administrator involved in the decision, something that could be seen as a conflict of interest?
Town officials haven't said.
Nor did they comment publicly with the additional implications of their decision.
Chief Peterson has said Mr. England is "subject to arrest" if he enters the building.
Does this mean he will be taken into custody if he enters town hall and tries to exercise his rights as a citizen to attend the commissioners' public meetings?
We don't know and town officials didn't say. The letter does say, however, that he may not enter town hall. It puts no limits on that ban.
What will happen if Mr. England comes to town hall to vote in the next municipal election? Will he be allowed to cast his ballot before he is dragged off in handcuffs?
We don't know, and, again, town officials didn't say.
We do know, however, that the town's elected and appointed officials have a history of reacting poorly to criticism.
The commissioners have even declared that any elected official who exercises his Constitutional right to free speech and speaks out against the board's decision is subject to censure.
Rising Sun's residents are citizens, not subjects who live in a municipal empire. They should not be required to obey official decrees without question, comment, or argument.
Mr. England has given us his version of what happened in his most recent, and probably last, visit to town hall.
Even if they see themselves wholly in the right, do Rising Sun town officials believe local governments should provide residents a better justification of their actions?
They didn't say.
Chief Peterson responds
This is the response written by Rising Sun police chief Chip Peterson which he circulated on social media and sent via email to The Herald on Thursday, July 21. The Herald's response to Chief Peterson's comments follow his letter.
To the editor:
The Rising Sun Police Department is employed by the citizens of the Town of Rising Sun to provide police services for its citizens and beholding’s. Those services include the protection of all town property and employees. The employees and citizens engaging in activities with the town of Rising Sun are entitled to a work environment or place to conduct business that is free of fear, harassment and threats of violence. As the Chief Law Enforcement Officer for the Town of Rising Sun, it is my duty to ensure that appropriate safety measures are in place.
Recently, a member of our community entered one of our facilities and behaved in a way that the employees of the town, the Board of Commissioners and I found alarming. Racial and ethnic statements and/or insinuations of violence directed at our staff, elected officials and citizens will not be tolerated.
Unfortunately and as seen in events across our country, the threat of violence toward law enforcement and government officials is real. Many communities only wish that they were awarded an opportunity to recognize a threat prior to the loss of life and property.
Recent months have proven to be a very emotional time for the citizens of this country. The acts of senseless violence committed against unsuspecting citizens continue to flood our media outlets. A recent attempt by our own local media outlet, The Rising Sun Herald, to diminish, and in reality, condone the threatening actions of an individual simply because of his age is irresponsible and negligent. The paper has gone so far as to provide a play-by-play of his actions and statements, seemingly to portray the whole situation as a joke. Rest assured the Town of Rising Sun and the Rising Sun Police Department do not take any threat as a joke and nor should our community during such unnerving times in our society. We have one opportunity to get it right. Any verbal threat or physical action that causes alarm will be met with preventative measures as our overriding goal is the safety of our town and its citizens.
F.D. Chip Peterson, Jr.,
Chief of the Rising Sun Police Department
Publisher's Note: Chief Peterson was contacted in person on Wednesday, July 13, about this incident and had five days to respond before the story was completed. His only comment was that Mr. England was subject to arrest if he entered town hall. He said any other comments would have to come from the town's elected officials, all of whom were contacted by email on July 13. Commissioner Leishear was the only one to respond to that email and he refused to discuss the incident.
Until after the story and accompanying editorial appeared in the July 19 issue of The Herald, the town stonewalled any effort to provide the municipality's position on this incident.
We did not take the matter lightly nor do we consider it a joke when a government body bans a citizen, effectively prohibiting him from attending a public meeting of the elected officials and of voting in the next municipal election.
If, indeed, Mr. England is guilty of making threats against Rising Sun's employees, volunteers, or elected officials, we have to wonder why Chief Peterson's only response is this written comment.
We still do not know if the town's police department investigated the incident or, more properly, referred the incident to the Cecil County Sheriff's Office or Maryland State Police, either of which would not have a perceived conflict of interest.
We reported the news in a story and then commented on questions raised by the incident and the way the town handled it. Chief Peterson has not adequately answered any of those questions. Instead, he attempts to deflect questions about the town's actions by accusing us of being negligent by treating the incident as a joke.
Threats are not funny. If they are perceived to be real, they should be investigated, and, if there is any truth to them, legal action should be taken. Then the parties involved will have a chance to make their cases in court.
So far, the only action the police have taken is to chastise The Herald for printing the news and commenting on it.
If that's what we're charged with, we plead guilty.