Cecil County Executive Candidates Spar, Politely, at Forum

March 2, 2012

Nine of the ten candidates for Cecil County’s first County Executive fielded questions for two hours Thursday at a community forum, with most of the attention focused on Commissioners Diana Broomell (R-4) and Tari Moore (R-2). The tone was polite but at times pointed.

There was a friends-and-family quality to some of the questioning as supporters of Broomell asked her questions on her accomplishments and supporting her position seeking further changes in the county’s newly adopted ethics code. But another questioner took her to task in pointed terms for her push for an ordinance aimed at limiting drug treatment clinics that had created hurdles for general health care facilities.

Broomell also provided some of the surprises of the evening, saying at one point that she was aware of ethics violations that had cost the county $1 million, before clarifying her remarks later that she was referring to costs of a lawsuit against the county. She also suggested hiring a county auditor and separate staff lawyers for the county administration and for the County Council, positions that were not specified in the Charter government plan approved by voters in November, 2010.

Only one candidate—Michael A. Dawson—declined to appear at the Elkton candidate forum sponsored by the Cecil County Patriots, the local “tea party” organization. Dawson— not to be confused with Michael W. Dawson, the former Constitution Party candidate for state delegate— is a first-term Perryville town commissioner and a Republican aligned with the Smipkin political organization tied to Del. Michael Smigiel and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, both R-36.

Other candidates in the crowded Republican primary field participating in the forum held at the county administration building were former Cecil County commissioner Harry Hepbron, owner of the Dove Valley winery in Rising Sun; Pete Pritchard, a retired civilian employee at Aberdeen Proving Ground; Richard Boyle, a retired General Motors supervisor; and Paul Trapani, a marina owner.

Also participating in the question and answer session were Democrats Pam Howard, the former Cecil County Treasurer; Robert McKnight, the mayor of North East; and Winston Robinson, senior financial officer for the City of Wilmington.

Candidates were given the opportunity to outline their qualifications and their platforms before responding to questions from the audience.

Moore said it will “take an extraordinary person” to be “the CEO of Cecil County” and said she felt “I am uniquely qualified to hit the ground running.” She noted her work to cut the current budget by about $340,000 more than her colleagues had thought possible through her detailed review of line items.

In response to a question asking her to detail her management experience, Moore cited her two years as executive director of the 600-member county Chamber of Commerce, work as a fiscal and legislative analyst before coming to Cecil County, and a little more than a year as a county Commissioner. She also noted her current membership on the board of the Maryland Association of Counties and testifying in Annapolis on legislation affecting the county.

Broomell said the county executive “will hire all the department heads” and “this is a lot of power for one person.” She said voters should elect “someone they can trust.”

In response to a question about how she could implement charter government when she had opposed the shift to that form of government, Broomell said she would be in charge of naming a new county finance director—since the post of independently elected Treasurer is eliminated by charter government—and that she wanted to have someone “looking over his shoulder.” She said she wanted to create the position of a county auditor to do just that.

In addition to the auditor post, she also said she wanted to have two county staff attorneys—one to be hired by the County Executive for county business and one to work with the County Council. “I think we have to have checks and balances in place,” Broomell said. She did not specify how much those positions would cost.

Meanwhile, Hepbron, speaking in his usual blunt style, cited his business and farm ownership, and said, “I don’t need this job.” But, Hepbron, added, “I want this job.” He said he was motivated to run for County Executive by the dissension among the current county commissioners and the breach of “trust” between the county and the business community created when a majority of commissioners voted to kill the contract for sale of county sewage plants to the private Artesian firm.

Hepbron said the county must rebuild that trust to bring jobs to the county and proposed a phase-out of the county’s inventory tax on small business. “I can make the hard votes, I can make the hard decisions,” Hepbron said, adding that he had been the lone Republican on a Democrat-controlled board but could still work across party lines for the good of the county.

Pam Howard said that the new County Executive must be someone with “well rounded experience in government” and cited her 12 years as county treasurer and her accounting background in both local government and the private sector. In response to a questioner who claimed she had not shown “empathy” to homeowners facing loss of their homes for non-payment of property taxes, Howard said in fact she and her staff had worked to link families with state programs that might help them keep their homes and “bent over backwards” to try to help people avoid a tax sale of a house.

McKnight said his top priority would be to “establish a stable and functional government” and said his record as the long-time mayor of the town of North East gave him the experience to do so. His mayoral experience was the equivalent of “20 years experience in doing exactly this job,” McKnight said, speaking in a rapid-paced style.

Robinson, questioned on how the county executive salary compared to his own experience and earnings history, said the projected $95,000 annual salary provided by the Charter plan was “less than I’ve earned.” He added, “It doesn’t matter what a person makes; it’s what they get done.”

Meanwhile, Broomell initially declared that “I have seen ethics violations” in the past, including one on which “we lost $1 million.” But when a citizen later asked why she had not gone to the county Ethics Commission or other authorities if she was aware of ethical misconduct, Broomell clarified that she was referring to the costs of “a lawsuit that was brought.” She said there should have been a hearing before the full Ethics Commission about accusations against former commissioner Brian Lockhart. Lockhart and the panel reached agreement without a formal hearing that he should not have spoken (even though he did not vote) on issues relating to the Aston Point development at a commissioners’ worksession.

The Appleton Regional Community Alliance (ARCA) sued the county unsuccessfully through the local and appellate courts to try to block the project. Apart from the legal fees incurred by the county, the costs of the delays and litigation bankrupted the developer and the housing community has not been built.

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