Cecil County Commissioners Oust Vernon Thompson, Economic Development Chief; Smipkins Get Even for Political Independence
The Cecil County Commissioners voted in secret session Tuesday to oust Vernon Thompson, a former senior state economic development official, as the county’s Director of Economic Development, according to informed sources.
Thompson confirmed that “I will be leaving Cecil County as of September 23 by mutual agreement with the county commissioners.”
The move had been widely expected at the beginning of the year, when a new majority of the Board of Commissioners emerged after last year’s elections, but the delay in dropping the guillotine until now had led some county observers to think that Thompson might survive after all.
But in recent weeks, there were signs that the new majority of the commissioners was anxious to consolidate control over the department and at least some of them wanted to exert political payback against Thompson on behalf of their state political mentors, who deemed him too independent.
The ouster of Thompson was greeted with shock and sadness Tuesday by some local leaders who had worked closely with him on economic development issues. Furthermore, the sudden move was not discussed with the county’s Economic Development Commission leadership in advance.
“I think it’s a gigantic loss for Cecil County,” Joyce Bowlsbey, a member of the executive committee of the Economic Development Commission, told Cecil Times. “Vernon was so well-connected at the state level,” she said, that the county had access to policymakers and economic development assistance it would not have had otherwise.
Thompson was the deputy Secretary of the state Department of Economic Development and also served as assistant Secretary for in-state development before coming to Cecil County several years ago. He initially was a contract employee but was made a county government employee about two years ago.
Bowlsbey, who also serves on the county Chamber of Commerce legislative affairs committee and headed the citizen panel that crafted a charter government plan approved by voters last year, said the loss of Thompson was “a real blow” and will set back economic development efforts in the county.
“We’re going to be like Brigadoon now. We’ll be coming back every 100 years; we’ll appear out of the mist,” she said.
The move was pushed by a three-member Commissioners’ alliance, including James Mullin (R-1), Michael Dunn (R-3) and Diana Broomell (R-4), who have been voting as a bloc. Mullin and Dunn are firmly aligned with the political machine assembled by state Sen. E.J. Pipkin and Del. Michael Smigiel, both R-36, while Broomell has become an increasingly loyal member of the voting bloc.
The commissioners dramatically cut the budget of the economic development department in the Fiscal 2012 budget approved in May. Then, at another secret session a few weeks ago, Dunn proposed eliminating the position of the agriculture co-coordinator in the economic development office. That position is currently held by the wife of the campaign treasurer for the election campaign of Circuit Court Judge Keith Baynes. Smigiel is expected to seek a judicial seat in the 2012 election. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/08/dunn-targets-cecil-county-ag-coordinator-closed-door-move-on-econ-development-program-has-political-hint/ ]
The move against Thompson came at a closed worksession Tuesday and there was a subsequent closed meeting with Thompson, sources said.
Broomell and Mullin have been speaking for several months about an unspecified “realignment” of county economic development activities. At one point, they sought to create a position at the county office building for the now-retired executive director of the Upper Shore Regional Council, John A. Dillman, for some unspecified economic development related position. [SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/05/dillman-out-as-head-of-planning-group-cecil-county-ponders-taking-in-orphaned-office/ ]
It was unclear Tuesday how such a ‘realignment’ might proceed with Thompson out of the picture, whether there would be a national search for a new director, or if Dillman would be on a short list of preferred candidates. Dillman has been a protégé of Pipkin and appeared with the senator at a worksession with the county commissioners recently to discuss broadband/internet services in the area.
Thompson got on the political hit list after he joined with then-commissioners several years ago to support special taxing districts to require new developments to pay fees to offset some of the costs of roads and public services to new projects so that longtime taxpayers would not have to absorb the full cost. Pipkin and Smigiel vehemently opposed that plan but the General Assembly sided with the county, in an embarrassing political slap in the face to the Smipkins.
The Smipkins also strongly opposed the shift to charter government approved by voters last year. Pipkin and Thompson got into some sharp exchanges at a meeting last fall over a citizens group, “Friends of Charter,” that raised funds for advertising by arranging business sponsorships of a tour of local housing developments for people transferring from New Jersey to the Aberdeen Proving Ground as part of the BRAC military realignment.
Pipkin and Smigiel placed advertisements of their own attacking the charter referendum, but voters disagreed with them and approved a shift to charter government by an overwhelming margin.
The ouster of Thompson comes at a time when the county is pursuing a number of potential business investors seeking to locate in Cecil County, as Thompson outlined to the commissioners at a meeting earlier this summer. Dunn did not attend that meeting. But sources said Dunn actively sought to oust Thompson on Tuesday.
Given the political overtones, the ouster of Thompson was “as predictable as a sunrise,” said one knowledgeable source. But this sunrise may be more like an eclipse.