Pro-Charter Group Raises $12,000; Volunteers Do BRAC Tour to Raise$
A group of local volunteers who support conversion of Cecil Countyâ€™s current five-member Commissioners form of government to a home-rule Charter systemâ€”with a county executive and a County Councilâ€”have raised nearly $12,000 to promote their position for a referendum question that will be on the November election ballot, according to reports filed with the state Board of Elections.
The organization, â€śFriends for Charter of Cecil County,â€ť is registered with the state as an â€śissue committee,â€ť which means that a group supports or opposes an issue that is on a local ballot as a referendum question. Such â€śissue committeesâ€ť are not allowed to contribute funds to an individual candidateâ€™s campaign committee or a slate registered to support a group of candidates, according to state election law.
â€śFriends for Charterâ€ť makes no bones about its position on its website,
which clearly states the groupâ€™s support for a switch to Charter government. No comparable anti-charter â€śissue committeeâ€ť has been registered, according to a search of the state Board of Elections website.
â€śFriends for Charterâ€ť raised $11,970, but after significant fundraising expenses and expenditures for billboards and advertising, the group had $2,916 cash on hand for further activities leading up to the November election. (See state report here: http://www.mdelections.org/campaign-finance/advanced-search/sumprocess.php?fsk=A00000722120100006&file=acctprocess
The largest sources of the groupâ€™s donations came from its organization of a â€śSee Cecil Countyâ€ť tour for potential residents looking to re-locate to the county from New Jersey as part of the BRAC (Base Realignment And Closing) initiative that is bringing thousands of military workers to Maryland. Volunteer-organized sponsorships of the August tour from local builders and housing developers paid costs of the tour, with excess funds going to the Friends committee.
According to the state reports, expenses related to the â€śtourâ€ť were $2,113, for a bus rental, food and related costs. There were also costs of $560 for food at a separate wine and cheese fundraiser for the Friends group, plus $2,950 for billboards and website hosting services.
Activities of the â€śFriends for Charterâ€ť have become a local controversy, after the â€śSomeone Noticedâ€ť blog in Elkton ( www.someonenoticed.wordpress.com ) published several reports and many comments, questioning the validity of the Friendsâ€™ involvement in BRAC tours. Kudos to our colleague for being first to address the subject.
But state election reports, and interviews with participants in events related to the â€śFriendsâ€ť fundraising efforts, show that the county government had no role in the â€śFriendsâ€ť activities and that volunteers dedicated their time without compensation to promote Cecil County to prospective residents coming to the area as a result of BRAC.
Furthermore, contrary to other published reports, there was only one bus tour in August and that tour was solely organized by a volunteer with no active role by the county government or county Economic Development office.
According to Vernon Thompson, the countyâ€™s director of Economic Development, the US Army paid expenses for tours of Cecil County two years ago that were conducted by the countyâ€™s Economic Development office, along with volunteers from the county Chamber of Commerce. But the Army then decided it would no longer provide any funds for bus rentals, meals and related expenses.
However, in Augustâ€”with the near deadline for many New Jersey residents to decide if they would move to Maryland to accept BRAC jobsâ€”the Army asked Cecil County to do another tourâ€”but without any funds to pay for buses, meals and other costs.
Thompson said the county, facing tough budget times, could not fork over the costs of such a tour. And at that time, the county Chamber of Commerce was involved in re-locating its headquarters to another site and could not be involved.
So Joyce Bowlsbey, with a long record of volunteer service to the county and the Chamber, including unpaid volunteer leadership of five past tours for BRAC visitors, stepped up to the plate. In an interview with Cecil Times, she said she organized a tour with support from local builders paying to provide â€śsponsorships.â€ť In the past, she said, there were only limited visits to potential housing developments but with the deadline to relocate looming, visitors insisted on being shown local housing opportunities.
Bowlsbey is also the chairwoman of the Charter commission that drafted the measure that will be on the local election ballot. She has also served on the county Planning Commission, county airport review panel, county wastewater panel, and is chairwoman of the Chamber of Commerce government relations committee, among many other volunteer positions.
Thompson said that Bowlsbey stepped in when there was no one else available to showcase Cecil County in a positive light and her past volunteer involvement in BRAC tours gave her the knowledge and experience to host the tour. â€śWe donâ€™t want to embarrass Cecil County,â€ť he said, by possibly putting less experienced people into the job of showcasing the county to out of state visitors.
According to the financial disclosure reports filed with the state, the following business entities contributed to the â€śFriendsâ€ť of Charter group:
—REM Construction Group, $1,500
—Clark Turner Signature Homes, $1,000
—Gemcraft Homes, $1,000
—Ryan Homes, $1,000
—Lin-Mar Development Corp, $1,500
—Richmond American Homes of MD, $1,500
The â€śFriendsâ€ť group also raised funds from a raffle of a refurbished antique trunk and guests at a wine and cheese event.