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Popcorn, Peanuts and Pipkin: Threatens “Legal Investigation” in Performance on County Stage

October 20, 2010
By Nancy Schwerzler

State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) berated the Cecil County Board of Commissioners and county staff Tuesday morning over what he called misuse of “county assets”—an email account—to promote a bus tour organized by a volunteer with a citizen’s group favoring adoption of a charter government referendum question on the November ballot. But county officials denied any wrongdoing and some Commissioners accused Pipkin and Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) of political grandstanding days before the elections.

During the nearly 90-minute session, which was called by Commissioners in response to a letter from Smigiel accusing the county of “secret deals,” Pipkin did most of the talking. But Vernon Thompson, the county’s economic development director, and Joyce Bowlsbey, a volunteer leader in the pro-charter effort who also organized an August bus tour criticized by the state politicians, had spirited debates with Pipkin.

“This is much ado about nothing,” Bowlsbey said. “It’s like no good deed goes unpunished.” She noted that “I’ve donated thousands and thousands of hours to volunteer for this county” and “My integrity has been questioned and I take issue with that.”

An undercurrent of amusement at the session by many in the ‘peanut gallery’ of observers—including county employees and local citizens– was a passed-around joke that Bowlsbey should have brought popcorn and peanuts to sell at the morning’s entertainment, with proceeds donated to the “Friends of Charter” ballot issue committee that is the target of the legislative duo’s ire.

As the Cecil Times previously reported here:
http://ceciltimes.com/2010/10/pro-charter-group-raises-12000volunteers-use-brac-tours-to-raise/ and here:
http://ceciltimes.com/2010/10/smigiel-claims-secret-deals-on-charter-group-county-cites-volunteers/

the “Friends” group supports a ‘yes’ vote on shifting the county’s governance from the current Board of Commissioners to a home-rule charter government system that would diminish the state legislative delegation’s power over county affairs. The Friends raised funds to support its efforts largely through a bus tour organized by Bowlsbey in August for New Jersey residents considering relocating to take jobs at Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of the Army’s BRAC (Base Realignment and Closing) initiative.

In past years, the Army paid costs of bus rentals and meals for the visitors, with the County Chamber of Commerce and volunteers such as Bowlsbey helping to guide the visits. The Army stopped paying any costs but asked the county to run one more tour for BRAC relocatees in August. The county had never used taxpayer funds to support past tours, Thompson said, and could not do so in August. The Chamber was unavailable to assist, so Bowlsbey said she stepped in and organized the tour on her own and asked local builders and real estate companies to chip in to cover the costs since the visitors wanted to see housing developments that had not been included on past tours.

Those sponsors “wrote checks” to the Friends of Charter group, she told the Commissioners Tuesday, and the group paid the costs of the bus rental, meals, and other expenses, with any excess funds retained by the Friends group. The group provided a full accounting on its report to the State Board of Elections, as required for a ballot issue committee. Bowlsbey said it was her decision alone to make the Friends group the beneficiary of her personal volunteer efforts.

Pipkin focused on an ad listing an email address for Erika Quesenbery, marketing director for the county’s economic development office, as the contact point for people wishing to participate in the August tour. That email address was a “county asset,” he said, that had been misappropriated.

Quesenbery, who has guided tours on her own time as a volunteer, told the meeting that she had been the contact person for the Fort Monmouth relocatees for several years and that the Army required one contact point in the county for all BRAC relocation issues. She said she simply forwarded emails to Bowlsbey from people wishing to join the August tour.

“That’s a legal question and other people will decide… there will be a legal investigation” and “the legal investigation is not in the hands of anyone in this room,” Pipkin declared. He did not elaborate on whether he or Smigiel would file a lawsuit or pursue some other legal or administrative challenge.

County Commissioner Rebecca Demmler, a Republican who is not running for re-election, declared, “I see this as political games being played just before an election.” She said it was a “ploy by a state delegate and senator” to “pick up votes.”

Smigiel loudly interrupted her, claiming he had sent a “private letter” to the commissioners and it was they who “chose to make it political” by “leaking” his letter to the press. Demmler responded that the commissioners chose to have Tuesday’s meeting to air the issue in public.

An unusual twist at the meeting was the active involvement of Michael Dixon, a historian and publisher of what he calls a “citizen journalism blog” in Elkton, who posed questions to Thompson and Bowlsbey, said the involvement of the Friends group in the tour “bothered me” and lectured the county commissioners on how to handle such issues.

“As the person who started this, it is not political,” Dixon declared. Demmler responded, “There are very many political undertones here.” Dixon, who has been writing about the issue for a month and criticizing the county administration on the topic, came back, saying that the matter had been “turned it into a political circus.”

The political-theatrical quality of Tuesday’s meeting was evident in some of the pointed banter between Pipkin and county officials.

“I’m used to taking potshots from the Senator,” Thompson said, noting that they were on opposite sides of a 2008 feud between the then-county commissioners and Pipkin-Smigiel on authority to create special financing districts to allow the county to charge developers fees for infrastructure costs related to their projects rather than ask current taxpayers to fund them. Smigiel and Pipkin vehemently opposed the legislation but the General Assembly sided with the county commissioners. However, the current board of commissioners has not yet used that authority.

Pipkin smirked at Thompson, saying “And how’s that working for you?”

“ It’s available,” Thompson said, if commissioners choose to use the state-granted authority.

At one point, Pipkin said his challenge to the Friends group was “ not personal,” to which Thompson responded, “I understand. Nothing is personal with you; it’s all business.”

County Attorney Norman Wilson, stepping in to defend Bowlsbey, told Pipkin, “to belittle her is wrong” and added, “You’re saying this is not political, well I’m wondering to myself what THIS is.”

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One Response to Popcorn, Peanuts and Pipkin: Threatens “Legal Investigation” in Performance on County Stage

  1. Skip Middleton on October 20, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    E.J. is a pompous ass, trying to show up at the final hour as a watchdog against public interest. Selling the Aberdeen area to relocating taxpayers is a concern that in many cases is borne by the state or local governments, Chambers, and economic development boards.

    He has totally lost the forest for the trees, and this is an excellent example of why he is not only poorly counseled, but also misguided. He is not fit for government service at any level.

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