Cecil County Lawmakers Push Revived Upper Shore Council; State Withholds $ due to “Organizational Issues”

October 7, 2011

Some Cecil County lawmakers are pushing to resurrect the Upper Shore Regional Council, a three-county economic development body that all but disappeared several months ago amidst financial and other problems.

A council sub-group tried to meet behind closed doors Wednesday on steps to name a new executive director, but Cecil Times forced much of the meeting to be open to the press under the state Open Meetings law.

The push to pick a new executive director comes even as some members of the full Upper Shore Regional Council (USRC) are raising questions about the group’s mission, direction and value to the three participating counties: Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s. At the same time, the state has withheld over $73,000 from the USRC this year in light of what a spokeswoman called “organizational issues.”

An executive committee of USRC convened Wednesday in Chestertown, at the offices of the Kent County Commissioners since the USRC had to give up its own separate office space due to its financial problems. The meeting had not been announced to the public in advance, but Kent County administrative aides had confirmed the meeting was to take place at the county building. (The last public meeting of the full USRC was in May, although a hastily organized meeting of some members was held during the August convention of the Maryland Association of Counties in Ocean City.)

On Wednesday, Cecil County Commissioner James Mullin (R-1), who serves as the current chairman of the USRC, sought to close the entire meeting, which was called to discuss the process of selecting a new executive director to replace John A. Dillman, who took a voluntary layoff and retirement in June due to the USRC’s financial difficulties.

Cecil Times objected and asked Mullin to call the Assistant Attorney General assigned to the state Open Meetings Compliance Board, Ann MacNeille, who had briefed Mullin and the rest of the Cecil County Commissioners on the state open meetings law a day earlier, at a Tuesday commissioners’ worksession in Elkton. Mullin and Dillman then retreated to another room for a telephone consultation.

Upon his return to the meeting room, Mullin announced that discussion of the process for selection of a new executive director would be open to the public. But he then revealed for the first time that the USRC had received a resume from an applicant for the executive director’s position and that resume could be reviewed in a closed session.

The position of executive director has not been advertised to the public and Mullin did not say how the lone applicant had learned of a possible opening.

Participating in person at Wednesday’s meeting were Mullin; Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Steve Arentz; Andi Morony, chief of staff for Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36); and Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36). Participating via speakerphone were Cecil County Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) and Kent County Commissioner William Pickrum. Although no longer employed by the USRC, Dillman participated in the meeting and Cecil County Human Resources Director Donna Nichols attended to offer advice on the candidate recruitment process.

Arentz questioned whether the recruitment of an executive director should precede a broader discussion of “what direction should the council be going in the future.” Pickrum added that such a discussion should be held “as early as possible.”

But Pipkin said that the discussion could be held in conjunction with the selection process for an executive director and said that a “scope of work” presented in May was “pretty detailed in laying out a game plan for the future.”

At the council’s last full panel public meeting in early May, Dillman said the Fiscal 2012 budget for the Council consisted of $100,000 from the state Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED), $36,000 from the three counties ($12,000 each) and a $2,500 federal economic stimulus grant, for a total of $138,500. (The 2012 fiscal year runs from 7/1/11 through 6/30/12.)

Dillman tried to get the Council to agree on a proposed “scope of work” for the remnants of the Council in FY12 that would cost $37,185, much of which would be allocated to a local “telemedicine” initiative advocated by Dillman and Pipkin. (Legislation on that issue proposed by Pipkin and Smigiel never got out of committee in Annapolis this year because there is already a state panel, including the University of Maryland and state emergency medicine experts, reviewing the subject.)
[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/ ]

The Council did not vote on Dillman’s plan at that meeting. But during a subsequent unannounced conference call, there was an agreement of those participating in the call to submit the proposal to the state. It could not be ascertained who participated in that call since there are no minutes posted on the council’s website. (Indeed, the council’s website had not been updated in over a year and no meeting minutes have been posted in more than a year.)

But the state DBED agency has not approved that request and in fact DBED has not released $73,500 to the USRC, due to “organizational issues,” according to a DBED spokeswoman. USRC is the only entity of the five regional councils in the state that has not been allocated its state funds during the current fiscal year, the spokeswoman added, although some funds for administration and operations have been released.

USRC is also the only regional council that has had such financial problems that it had to suspend operations. USRC submitted its Fiscal 2011 annual report to DBED in late August and it is under review, according to state agency officials.

At Wednesday’s meeting, participants agreed to advertise the opening for an executive director in regional media, including Easton, Salisbury and Baltimore, as well as with professional organizations. Once applications are received, Pipkin said that the executive committee should “narrow it down to a person” who would then be “introduced” to the full USRC.

The panel tentatively agreed to an early November meeting of the executive committee and Pipkin said a meeting of the full USRC should be convened in December.

The group then went into a closed session to review the resume of the person who has already submitted an application for the job. The USRC has budgeted a $60,000 annual salary for the executive director’s position, but Dillman is believed to have been making as much as $80,000 plus benefits.

After the meeting, Arentz, the Queen Anne’s County Commissioner, said that he believes the USRC can be a useful tool for the Upper Shore but it must have a clear focus on helping all three of the participating counties. He said he was “not big on” the telemedicine focus that Dillman advanced, saying, “I don’t see where the jobs are going to come from on that.”

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