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3 Cecil County Commissioners Commiserate at Chili’s; State Lawyer Warns Private Confabs in Conflict with Open Meetings Act

October 5, 2011
By Nancy Schwerzler

Commentary

The Cecil County Commissioners’ “Three Amigos” faction gathered after Tuesday night’s official commissioners meeting for a tete a tete at Chili’s in Elkton, multiple sources said– just hours after an Assistant State Attorney General warned them about such gatherings that could be seen as a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.

Granted, the Three Amigos—Commissioners James Mullin (R-1), Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3)—had a tough night, being lambasted for the second consecutive evening meeting by members of the county’s “tea party” organization, the Cecil County Patriots, during the public comments portion of the official meeting. So perhaps a cool libation was in order to steady the commissioners’ nerves.

But the lessons imparted Tuesday morning at a commissioners’ public worksession by Ann MacNeille, an Assistant Attorney General who serves as legal counsel to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, seemed to have been quickly forgotten.

Ms. MacNeille’s briefing on the fine points of the state Open Meetings Act was requested by County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5), who has voted several times against going into secret, closed sessions of the county board.

Hodge has also questioned what he has said appeared to be private conversations or contacts among a three-member majority of the five-member commissioners’ board on a number of public policy issues, especially efforts to kill the proposed takeover of county wastewater plants by the private Artesian Resources firm. (The Three Amigos faction voted last week to “mutually terminate” the contract to sell four county sewage plants to Artesian, while Hodge and Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) voted no.)

The Cecil County Board of Commissioners received a major wrist-slap from the Open Meetings Compliance Board earlier this year over discussions, involving a previous Board of Commissioners, on the hiring of a lobbyist to oppose legislation in Annapolis. [SEE Cecil Times Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2011/05/cecil-county-commissioners-slapped-on-wrist-by-state-open-meetings-panel/ ]

Ms. MacNeille advised the commissioners that “when decisions pop up out of nowhere” citizens will wonder where the rationale came from since it was not discussed in public.

She cited what she called the “Dunkin’ Donuts case,” in which citizens spotted a majority of elected town officials routinely showing up together at the local shop. It was determined that the visits to the local donut emporium were coincidental, but she said it illustrated the problem of public perception.

Chili’s does not serve donuts, as far as we know, and is but one of many restaurants and bars in the Elkton area. Of course, it might just have been coincidental that the Three Amigos showed up there shortly after their evening public meeting, but it did not appear to be coincidental that they sat together and had a lengthy conversation, sources told Cecil Times.

During Tuesday’s public commissioners’ worksession, Ms. MacNeille told the commissioners that state law was vague on email contacts among commissioners and was primarily targeted to situations when commissioners were “present together” where there was a “quorum” present, either in person or including some members participating in a discussion via a telephone conference call.

Commissioner Broomell questioned whether a commissioner should be forced to explain why he—and she clearly meant Hodge—voted against going into a closed, secret session. Ms. MacNeille said that was not required.

Ms. Broomell also opined that she thought it was “legal” for commissioner to be together if they did not discuss policy questions. Ms. MacNeille said that there were many occasions, such as public events, ribbon-cuttings or casual contacts and community events that would not trigger the open meetings law because there was no discussion of public policy matters.

So perhaps the Three Amigos were discussing the weather at Chili’s?

[UPDATE: Commissioner Broomell contacted Cecil Times on Thursday to say that she was mostly talking with Mike Burns, a Democrat and the chairman of the county Ethics Commission, at Chili's and did not go there with the intent of having sub-rosa conversations with fellow commissioners. She complained that our report gave an impression that was "not accurate."]

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6 Responses to 3 Cecil County Commissioners Commiserate at Chili’s; State Lawyer Warns Private Confabs in Conflict with Open Meetings Act

  1. Alexis on October 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Chiligate??? Hey 3 Amigos, you didn’t pay attention in Ms. Mac Neille’s class. All three get an F in Transparency 101.

  2. Tidewater on October 6, 2011 at 6:08 am

    The first amendment protects a citizens right to assemble regardless of what the totalitarians in Annapolis say. These citizens have every right to assemble in private/public as anyone else and if you don’t like it feel free to move to Cuba or China.

    • Alexis on October 6, 2011 at 9:32 am

      Didn’t the 3 Amigos vote to deny Commissioner Hodge’s rezoning requests (recommended by the Planning Commission) because he is a Commissioner? Didn’t Dunn say that Hodge “should have thought of that before he ran for office?” Didn’t all three run on a platform that called for transparency and an end to secret deals?

      They should hold themselves to the same high standards they demand of others. “Perception is reality,” as the saying goes. I was not surprised by the meeting, only that Smigiel and Pipkin were not at the table. But I hear that Pipkin and his wife were at a table nearby.

    • sick of BS on October 8, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Dear Tidewater,

      Not when it comes to elected officials. Ever heard of the Open Meetings Act? Do some research. Use some common sense! Don’t like it, then you can move to Cuba or China. These three commissioners are supposed to represent the people of Cecil County NOT their cronies and personal agendas.

      Get a clue.

  3. R Baker on October 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Remember, before she was elected, Ms. Broomell was quite vocal about the Commissioners at that time conducting their business in the “back room.” And she also had a big problem with the self-serving report by the previous officials on it being too expensive to make the meetings more open using video. She even had some ideas on how it could be accomplished. Of course, once elected she flushed what little transparency there was down the drain. I guess we can see why now!

  4. Ron Lobos on October 13, 2011 at 9:29 am

    I need to make it clear that Commissioner Broomell is not being truthful in her statement that she was mostly talking with Mike Burns of the county Ethics Commission while at Chili’s. I know this because I was with Mike Burns for a good 45 minutes observing her converse with Dunn and Mullin before Mike Burns ever spoke with her –which leads me to believe that her intent to meet at Chili’s was not to talk to Mr. Burns but rather to have conversations with Mullin and Dunn.

    Because of previous conversations with Ms. Broomell, I have come to realize that she is the “Queen of Spin.”

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