Cecil County Commissioners Hire Smigiel Legal Ally to Review Artesian Contract; No Cap on Fees
The Cecil County Commissioners voted, 3-2, Tuesday to hire a new lawyer, with close ties to Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36), to review the 2008 contract to sell county water and sewer plants to the private Artesian firm. The commissioners set no dollar limit on the fees the new lawyer can receive.
The move was initiated by Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4), a staunch opponent of the sale of most county water and sewer plants to Artesian. Voting with her were her usual compadres, Commissioner Board President James Mullin (R-1) and Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) Voting no, as usual, were Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2).
Hodge and Moore said the action was a waste of taxpayer funds. The county has already spent over $203,000 in legal fees to defend the sale against a lawsuit by the Appleton Regional Community Alliance (ARCA) that was rejected by the state’s highest court.
Broomell and Mullin said their ultimate goal was to try to “renegotiate” the sewage treatment portion of the contract.
The county has previously been advised by the county attorney, Norman Wilson, and Larry Haislip, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented the county on the Artesian matter for years, that the 2008 contract is legally binding and that the county could face serious financial consequences if it is in breach of the contract. The same voting bloc decided recently to fire Haislip from handling the Artesian matter.
At a Tuesday worksession, Broomell and her allies voted to hire Irwin Kramer, a Baltimore county lawyer. Kramer is a political donor to Smigiel, state campaign finance records show, and he also represented Smigiel in two lawsuits against the state government, both of which he lost. Smigiel challenged the 2007 special session of the General Assembly in a lawsuit against Comptroller Peter Franchot and also sued to try to block the slots referendum that was eventually approved overwhelmingly by state voters. Kramer has also testified in support of some Smigiel-sponsored legislation in Annapolis.
Both Dunn and Broomell were formerly employed as aides to Smigiel in his legislative office. Smigiel recently intervened in a regulatory proceeding before the state Public Service Commission, in consultation with Broomell, to try to delay a scheduled hearing on the Artesian sale. The PSC refused to delay the hearing but has not yet rendered a decision on the sale.
When asked by Cecil Times, Broomell admitted that she had consulted with Smigiel about hiring Kramer. Some commissioners were unaware of Kramer’s ties to Smigiel at the time the vote was taken.
“This is a total waste of taxpayers’ dollars,” Hodge said during the worksession, adding it was clear the majority was trying to “kill this deal.” But “its just not sound business to try to weasel out” of a valid contract, he added.
Moore said the fait accompli nature of the plan to hire Kramer was “not a request for proposal but a sole source contract.”
Broomell said she still had a lot of “questions” about the validity of the contract and wanted to do “due diligence.”
Then she started to launch an attack, echoing a previous line of allegations made by Dunn at an earlier commissioners’ meeting but not fully supported by state records, to question campaign donations received by Hodge. “I’m a conservative,” Broomell began, but Mullin gaveled the discussion out of bounds.
Moore began to challenge Broomell’s characterization and said she had not received such campaign donations but she was gaveled to silence by Mullin, too. “Please, please, stop,” Mullin said.
After the worksession, Broomell said the commissioners had a telephone conference call with Kramer earlier this month to discuss the Artesian matter. She said she felt “comfortable” with him representing the county’s interests and that his fees would be $300 per hour.
Meanwhile, the county faces a 12/31/11 deadline to complete the complex transaction under its contract with Artesian or else there could be a costly breach of contract claim against the county. Artesian has already notified the county of three possible breaches of the contract so far, including Broomell’s testimony against the sale at the PSC and Smigiel’s intervention at the behest of Broomell.
Joseph A. DiNunzio, executive vice president of Artesian, told Cecil Times Tuesday that “the choice of legal counsel is a decision of the Board of Commissioners to make.”