Cecil County Commissioners Slapped on Wrist by State Open Meetings Panel
A state open meetings board has slapped the Cecil County Commissioners on the wrists for going behind closed doors in 2010 to hire a lobbyist to oppose two bills pushed in Annapolis by state Sen. E.J. Pipkin and Del. Michael Smigiel, both R-36, that would have limited the powers of county government leaders.
In a report filed April 11, 2011, the state Open Meetings Compliance Board concluded that the County Commissioners “made an effort to comply with the formalities of the Act” but that their actual closed-door discussions went beyond the exceptions they cited under the Open Meetings law when they decided to go into closed sessions.
The findings carry no penalties or fines but serve as a slap on the wrist to the County Commissioners. Since the report was sent to the county, the Commissioners have been noticeably careful to cite full chapter and verse of permissible exceptions of the open meetings law before going into closed-door discussions at their weekly Tuesday worksessions.
The county paid $5,380 to a Baltimore attorney, Lawrence Haislip, of the Miles and Stockbridge law firm, to represent the Commissioners in their response to the complaint to the open meetings board, according to documents obtained by Cecil Times under the state public records act. That cost to taxpayers was on top of the $6,000 the county paid to a lobbyist from another firm hired last year to oppose the Smigiel-Pipkin legislation.
The complaint to the state panel was filed by Craig O’Donnell, an editor and reporter at the Kent County News. That weekly newspaper, which does not cover Cecil County news, is owned by Chesapeake Publishing, which also owns the Cecil Whig. The Cecil Whig reported repeatedly on the controversy over the Smigiel-Pipkin legislation and the Commissioners’ decision to hire a lobbyist. Smigiel and Pipkin loudly complained at the time that the county had hired a lobbyist to oppose them.
O’Donnell filed his complaint to the state board in 2010, at the time when Smigiel and Pipkin were pushing their legislation to mandate binding arbitration to benefit county Sheriff’s Deputies and another bill to mandate that the Cecil County Commissioners could not raise property taxes beyond the “constant yield” level.
Cecil County Commissioners opposed both bills as improper usurpations of local powers and authority. Commissioners, joined by Sheriff Barry Janney, opposed the binding arbitration bill and they testified in Annapolis against the legislation.
The property tax bill was killed by the General Assembly, failing even to make it out of committee after the Commissioners testified against it in Annapolis. The sponsors of the binding arbitration bill were forced to water down their measure to provide only collective bargaining, which the County Commissioners supported. The commissioners successfully opposed the binding arbitration provision that they, and the Sheriff, said could result in an outside arbitrator imposing costly, taxpayer-financed wage packages.
The Open Meetings Compliance Board concluded, in an opinion signed by three members, that there were “violations” of state law because “neither the open meetings nor the documentation of the closed meetings conveyed to the public the process by which the Commissioners reached decisions on reclassification matters, their positions on two bills in the General Assembly, and their authorization to themselves to take prompt and effective action as may be necessary to forestall passage of the Bills….’
“We conclude that the Commissioners violated the Act by discussing in closed meetings matters which exceeded the scope of the exceptions they cited and by failing in several instances to adequately identify the topics discussed and actions taken,” the board added.
The panel said the commissioners had the right to discuss hiring a lobbyist in closed session but concluded that minutes of the meetings showed the discussion meandered into broader issues that had not been cited in the initial actions to close the meeting.
County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), who was a member of the county board at the time, told Cecil Times, “Yes, technically we didn’t follow the law the way we should have” and added, “I think it’s a learning experience.”
He said the infraction was “not intentional” and noted that the Commissioners issued press releases about their decision to hire a lobbyist and then-Commissioners were very vocal in public about the reasons they opposed the Smigiel-Pipkin legislation.
Former Commissioners Board President Brian Lockhart (D-4) even volunteered to pay for the lobbyist himself or take up a collection among other Commissioners to offset the costs of the lobbyist. (However, the county ended up paying the bill.)
“I think the Commissioners were their own best lobbyists,” Hodge said, and the hired lobbying firm was helpful in giving guidance on how to approach the legislative process in Annapolis.
The Commissioners succeeded in de-railing two “local bills” offered by Smigiel and Pipkin, an embarrassing defeat for a state lawmaker on a hometown issue. Usually, the General Assembly defers to a delegation on a local issue.
The state board’s findings are here: