Cecil County Planning Panel: Owen Thorne Out; Commish Dunn Picks his Campaign Godfather for Seat

September 6, 2011

Owen Thorne, the controversial interim appointee to the Cecil County Planning Commission who was expected to get appointed to a full three-year term on Tuesday, is out and the political campaign treasurer for Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) – Skip Yust —is in. Under informal County Commissioner procedures, the seat is Dunn’s to fill, with approval of a majority of the county board.

Dunn, who had engineered the interim appointment of Thorne, said that Thorne had asked to have his name withdrawn and that Yust would be his choice for the seat. Yust is a former Rising Sun town commissioner and a political ally of, and campaign contributor to, both Dunn and Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4).

Dunn made the surprise announcement at Tuesday morning’s commissioners worksession, just hours before the Commissioners were due to vote at their formal evening meeting on a candidate— expected to be Thorne– to fill the Planning Commission seat. Given the suddenness of his choice, Dunn agreed to postpone a final decision on the Yust appointment until fellow commissioners had time to review it. But Yust’s political alliances, and campaign donations, indicate he will win ultimate approval from the usual three-vote majority on the current county Board of Commissioners.

Thorne had received an interim appointment to serve out a few months on the term of Joe Janusz, who had resigned from the planning panel, and the new appointment would have been for a full three-year term.

But Thorne ignited a firestorm of controversy, both for his role as an activist for the Appleton Regional Community Alliance (ARCA) and what an opponent called “potty-mouthed” political rants against Republicans and ‘tea party’ activists on his Facebook account. [See previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/08/owen-thorne-barks-but-cecil-county-patriots-bite-back-at-planning-appointee/ ]

Members of the county’s “tea party” organization, the Cecil County Patriots, strongly opposed Thorne, saying that his role as an ARCA activist and vehement anti-growth advocate could mean costly legal expenses for taxpayers from his potential decisions on the planning panel. ARCA’s lawsuit against the county over the sale of county water and sewer plants to the private Artesian firm has cost county taxpayers at least $203,000 in legal fees. The state’s highest court and the state Public Service Commission have rejected ARCA’s objections and approved the sale to Artesian.

Some members of the Patriots who attended Tuesday’s worksession applauded the withdrawal of Thorne’s name. But they were less than enthusiastic about the selection of Yust, who was the political campaign treasurer for Dunn’s 2010 campaign for county commissioner.

State campaign finance records show that during the last two election campaign cycles, Yust made some modest ticket and raffle purchases for events sponsored by the local Republican Central Committee. But his only direct political candidate donations were to Dunn and Broomell. Yust donated $100 to open the campaign finance account for Dunn and served as his campaign committee treasurer. Yust also donated $200 to Broomell’s unsuccessful 2006 campaign for county commissioner.

In addition, Yust is the former president of the “21st Century Republican Club,” a group that has been aligned with Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36). Broomell is also a former officer of that group. During Yust’s leadership of that political club, it co-sponsored forums that challenged residential growth in the county. And after the 2006 election, Yust wrote, as president of the club, that his group would “continue to promote and support responsible growth and future candidates that feel likewise,” according to a letter to the Cecil Whig.

Yust is a former Rising Sun town commissioner but was defeated for re-election in the 2009 town election. While he was a town commissioner, he helped arrange for Dunn to get a seat on the town’s zoning appeals panel.

Yust and Dunn also served together on the county Republican Central Committee.

At least in theory, it could be an asset to the Planning Commission to have a former town commissioner on the panel to bring the perspective of the towns to planning issues. But Yust’s most salient qualifications appear to be his political alliances and allegiances.

Dunn’s selection of Yust brings a newcomer to the planning panel and rejects another Rising Sun-area resident with up-to-date experience on planning issues. In sharp contrast to Yust, Clay McDowell is currently serving as an alternate member of the planning panel, who only gets to vote if a fully seated member is absent. But as an alternate, McDowell attends meetings and is briefed on issues pending before the panel.

Meanwhile, the ouster of Thorne leaves up in the air the fate of a new Planning Commissioner subcommittee that Thorne was given the chairmanship of — the subcommittee on Priority Preservation Areas– at the behest of county Commissioner Broomell, who serves as the non-voting commissioners’ representative to the planning panel. That new subcommittee will play a key role in deciding which lands to include in programs that provide tax credits and other financial incentives for land preservation.

The subcommittee will also likely be a key player in implementing a purchase/transfer of development rights plan pushed by Commissioner James Mullin (R-1), who also voted with Dunn and Broomell to appoint Thorne to the commission in June. The county commissioners have earmarked up to $1 million in casino revenues to launch that land preservation effort.

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