Smigiel Claims “Secret Deals” on Charter Group; County Cites Volunteers

October 17, 2010

The Cecil County commissioners will hold a special work session Tuesday to address allegations by Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) claiming “secret deals” aided the “Friends of Charter” ballot issue committee and asserting “unethical, if not illegal” conduct.

Smigiel is an avowed foe of converting the county’s commissioner form of government to a home-rule charter government that would make the county more independent of the state’s legislative delegation. In his letter sent several days ago to the Cecil County Commissioners, he demanded answers to a list of questions challenging the “Friends of Charter” group, the county’s office of Economic Development and questioning who has the right to use the county’s official seal.

The Commissioners have scheduled a 10 am worksession, following their regular 9 am Tuesday worksession, to address the subject. The flap comes just a few days before voters begin to cast their ballots on a referendum question on the general election ballot asking for a yes or no vote on changing the county’s governance to charter. Early voting begins on Friday.

As the Cecil Times previously reported here, the Friends group, which supports a yes vote on charter, raised funds to support its efforts primarily from a bus tour organized by Joyce Bowlsbey, the chairperson of a committee that drafted the charter plan. Bowlsbey is a longtime volunteer with various county programs and is active in the Chamber of Commerce.

The bus tour was designed to show local housing opportunities to New Jersey residents considering re-locating to Cecil County as part of the BRAC military base realignment that is bringing thousands of jobs to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. Past tours did not focus on housing and were paid for by the Army, but the August tour organized by Bowlsbey had no Army or county taxpayer funds involved, according to Bowlsbey and county economic development director Vernon Thompson.

Bowlsbey has said she came up with the idea to ask housing developers and builders to sponsor the August tour as a way to showcase their projects to prospective homebuyers and organized the tour herself.

In his letter, Smigiel questions what if any role the commissioners or the advisory Economic Development Commission had in the matter. He also asserts an improper “attempt to influence the vote on the ballot question” and demands “an investigation” of Thompson and his department. Smigiel also questions a possible county authorization of usage of the county’s official seal on materials printed by the Friends of Charter group.

According to informed sources, the county will advise Smigiel that there were “no inappropriate activities by any county department on this issue.” Also, the county seal is not under copyright and as such could be used by any group. The county will also report that neither the Commissioners nor the Office of Economic Development was involved in any activities supporting “Friends of Charter.”

The county has also recently obtained data showing that so far 18 percent of the transferees from Fort Monmouth have decided to relocate to Cecil County, providing a boost to the local economy. The county is expected to link the success of efforts to lure BRAC relocations to work by volunteers and the Chamber of Commerce that have participated in past efforts to showcase the county to BRAC visitors.

Smigiel has targeted Thompson since 2008, trying to get him ousted from his position or get his pay cut in half, after Thompson sided with then-Commissioners who successfully obtained state legislative authority for the commissioners to create special taxing districts. Such districts could be set up to require developers to pay costs of infrastructure, such as roads and schools, needed to serve their projects, rather than asking existing taxpayers to pay the costs.

Smigiel and State Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) vehemently opposed the districts but the rest of the General Assembly sided with the county commissioners in an embarrassing setback in Annapolis for Smigiel and Pipkin.

The Friends of Charter group has cited that issue as part of its campaign, which asserts that such local issues should be decided by local elected officials, not Annapolis.

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