Cecil County “Amigos” Rush Vote on Clinic Ordinance; No Notice to Other Commish, Public
The ‚ÄúThree Amigos‚ÄĚ faction of the Cecil County Commissioners rushed a vote Tuesday night to approve a controversial zoning ordinance provision aimed at limiting drug treatment clinics, without advance notice to two other commissioners or the general public.
The handling of the matter raises questions anew about possible violations of the state‚Äôs open meetings act and private communications among some of the current commissioners.
The zoning measure was not listed as an ‚Äúaction‚ÄĚ item on the Commissioners‚Äô agenda and the prime advocate of the change, Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) did not publicly disclose to fellow commissioners, during an earlier in the day worksession, an apparent plan to push for immediate action moments after the conclusion of a public hearing Tuesday evening. (At the hearing, about 15 people supported the zoning law change and 2 opposed it, with most speakers condemning location of a proposed methadone-dispensing drug treatment clinic on Route 40 at the old Rose‚Äôs Diner property.)
Commissioners Board President James Mullin (R-1) laid the groundwork for Broomell to push for an immediate vote. He suddenly declared at the end of the public hearing that ‚ÄúThe Board of County Commissioners has been asked to look out for the best interests of the community‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúthe Board is being asked to act.‚ÄĚ
He then asked ‚Äúwhat are our options here‚ÄĚ under county rules requiring legislative matters to be introduced at one meeting but not voted upon until another meeting. After concluding that an earlier version of the proposal had been introduced by Broomell in June, (it was later withdrawn but a revised version was proposed in October) Mullin then announced: ‚ÄúI‚Äôll entertain a motion to vote on the ordinance tonight.‚ÄĚ
Broomell then immediately made that motion, which was promptly seconded by Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3). Broomell, Mullin and Dunn have become a controlling voting bloc, dubbed the ‚ÄúThree Amigos,‚ÄĚ on the county board.
Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-3) were caught by surprise, after they had raised questions about the proposal earlier in the day and had been led to believe by Mullin that the evening hearing was just to ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs hear what everyone has to say.‚ÄĚ
[SEE detailed Cecil Times report on Tuesday morning‚Äôs discussion of the clinic measure, possible legal consequences, and health officials‚Äô objections, here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/01/paging-dr-broomell-cecil-county-commissioners-differ-on-diagnosis-of-drug-clinics-law-litigation/ ]
‚ÄúWe need to do it right, and not fast,‚ÄĚ Hodge said, noting the objections of doctors and medical professionals, including Union Hospital, that an overly broad application of the term ‚Äúclinic‚ÄĚ could drive away primary care doctors, dentists and other medical professionals from the county. The county Planning Commission recommended 12/19/11 that the Commissioners work with ‚Äústakeholders‚ÄĚ to re-define the term clinic before moving ahead.
‚ÄúAre you ignoring the Planning Commission recommendation,‚ÄĚ Moore asked Broomell
Broomell said ‚Äėlegitimate‚Äô medical offices could pay a fee and seek a variance from the Board of Appeals if their facilities fell within the ‚Äėbuffer‚Äô areas created by the ordinance to ban clinics from areas near schools, churches, day care centers or residential areas.
‚ÄúI see no need for further delay,‚ÄĚ said Dunn, who had not uttered a word on the issue at the earlier worksession. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a good ordinance that will hold up in court.‚ÄĚ
Although the proposal does not specify any particular clinic by name or location, the measure, and the speed of its adoption, is clearly aimed at the Rose‚Äôs Diner location which has initial, but not final, permits to open a drug treatment clinic. It is unclear what legal implications could occur if the county tries to apply the new ordinance to a project that is already underway and whose owners have invested significant money into renovating the property.
Hodge said it was clear to him that the Commissioners‚Äô sudden action ‚Äúwill come back to bite us‚Ä¶this will not survive a legal challenge.‚ÄĚ
Patrick Conway, the county‚Äôs director of permits and inspections, told Cecil Times Wednesday that the Rose‚Äôs Diner property has had rough-in inspections of framing and major mechanical systems, such as electrical, heating and plumbing. But final inspections have not yet been made and there still must be sign-off inspections by other agencies, including the Health Department, Department of Public Works, the state Fire Marshall and the county‚Äôs Planning and Zoning office. He said the construction work appeared to be ‚Äúclose‚ÄĚ to completion, with interior drywall and a handicapped access ramp finished.
Cecil Times contacted Acorn Investments, the property owner, and was told that a principal of the firm was out of town and not immediately available for comment on the Commissioners‚Äô action, possible impact on the property and potential legal challenges.
One local lawyer, who does not do work for the county, said that in any civil case, the court looks at evidence of intent by the parties. The suddenness of the commissioners‚Äô vote, the lack of advance public notice, and the open references by some Commissioners and the public to the Rose‚Äôs Diner property could all be considered factors indicating an improper singling-out of one project rather than a broader policy goal, said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But regardless of the possible legal consequences, and potential costs to taxpayers in attorney fees, some citizens made it clear that there were political consequences if commissioners did not act to block the Route 40 clinic and other possible facilities to treat substance abuse in the county.
Ann Connor, an adjoining property owner, noted that some of the commissioners have filed for re-election and ‚Äúmy family will remember how you voted.‚ÄĚ
Moore addressed Connor‚Äôs warning directly, saying that while she understood neighbors‚Äô concerns, ‚ÄúI still have to do what I think is right for all the citizens in Cecil County.‚ÄĚ She said the way in which the matter was handled by the commissioners ‚Äúbypasses the process that protects all of us.‚ÄĚ (Moore has filed as a candidate for County Executive.)
Then Mullin called the vote and, as usual, it was 3-2, with the Amigos voting to adopt the clinic rules and Hodge and Moore vote against adoption.