Cecil County Ad War, Part 2: Pats on Back for Broomell, and The Guardian
Cecil County taxpayers are getting a significant cost break on legal advertising of properties that are delinquent on their county property taxes, thanks to competition to the Cecil Whig. And County Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) gets a “pat on the back” for being technically and legally right on her contentious challenges on the issue.
But if the county government had bowed down from the outset of Broomell’s demands—to ban the upstart weekly printed newspaper, the Cecil Guardian, from bidding—the established print newspaper, the Cecil Whig, would have continued its monopoly on county government legal advertising, which yielded the Whig and its parent company over $151,000 last year in taxpayer-provided funds.
However, as a result of perceived competition from the Guardian, the Whig recently slashed its advertising rates in order to get a lucrative deal with the independently elected county Treasurer to print the listings of properties that have not yet paid their property taxes. So even though the Guardian didn’t get this ad placement, the mere fact of its competition with the Whig netted substantial cost savings to county citizens.
Broomell had supported the Whig’s original, much higher bid, saying the Guardian did not meet legal tests required for county legal advertising. She also excoriated the Guardian for editorial and news content she called “propaganda” that she said county funds should not support. The Guardian’s editorials and letters to the editor pages have often published content critical of Broomell’s actions as a public official.
[SEE previous Cecil Times report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/04/special-report-cecil-county-newspaper-ad-wars-taxpayer-at-stake/ ]
At issue is the annual publication of homes and businesses that have not paid property taxes to the county. By law, the Treasurer must publish—four times—the list of delinquent properties before they are put up for public auction for non-payment of taxes due. (In reality, most of the properties are eventually redeemed by their owners, and they must pay fees including the costs of advertising the properties at the tax sale. So county taxpayers only temporarily pay the costs of the ads and the landowners eventually pay the cost as part of their redemption fees.)
The Cecil Whig originally proposed an ad rate of $46.75 per property listing, plus a $500 fee for headers and footers on ad pages. In contrast, The Guardian proposed a much cheaper fee of $35 per property listing, with no other fees.
County Treasurer Bill Feehley initially recommended giving the advertising contract to the Guardian because of its cheaper costs, after he obtained independent legal advice that the Guardian met legal standards for county ads in a general circulation newspaper. In addition, the county attorney held the Guardian met the standards and a Circuit Court judge ruled last summer that the Guardian weekly newspaper qualified as a publisher of legal ads.
But Broomell challenged the lawyers and the judge, siding with a lawyer for the Whig that contested the Guardian’s qualification under one legal standard—being qualified for “second class” postal mailing privileges.
Although state law sets that standard for qualification of newspaper legal ads, in fact, the US Postal Service did away with the second class mailing category over a decade ago.
After a contentious worksession of the County Commissioners on the legal ads issue a few weeks ago, the Cecil Whig came back with a proposal to cut its rates dramatically, by $20.25 per listing–to be even lower than The Guardian– with a fee of $26.50 per property listing and no other fees. Of course, by that time the Whig knew what the Guardian was proposing and cut its own proposal accordingly.
Feehley told Cecil Times that the Whig claimed that its January ad fee proposal wasn’t really a formal bid and insisted it be allowed to put in a new bid—after The Guardian’s proposal had been reported here. Feehley said he required that the Whig put its proposal into a sealed envelope that he would not open until The Guardian put in a new bid, too, if it chose to do so.
But when The Guardian did not come back with a new proposal, he opened the envelope and went with the suddenly reduced Whig proposal, so people buying the printed Whig are seeing the property tax sale listings as of a few days ago.
“We got what we wanted: a cheaper cost for the citizens of Cecil County,” Feehley told Cecil Times.
Bill DeFreitas, publisher of the Guardian, told Cecil Times he had a “bulk mail” permit from the Postal Service which amounts to the old 2nd class category that no longer exists. He said he has filed paperwork to obtain a bulk mail “periodical” designation for mailing that should satisfy his critics.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Broomell is strutting her technical victory, stating that the Guardian did not meet all legal standards, despite the ruling of a Circuit Court judge, and the opinions of the county attorney and an independent legal advisor consulted by Feehley, who all found the Guardian met the rules for county legal ads.
In written comments submitted to Cecil Times on Friday, she wrote, “… the Guardian agreed to pull out and said they would be applying for the Periodical (second class) Permit which is necessary to qualify as a newspaper of record. It was only after I did the research and provided the necessary information from USPS and Judge Bell – not our attorney, Norm Wilson. If we had listened to Mr. Wilson, Commissioner Hodge and Bill DeFreitas, Cecil County Government could have been sued for publishing public notices in a free newspaper which is not a newspaper of record.”
DeFreitas has challenged that characterization of the Guardian, stating that it has paid subscribers via mail and it is generally available at outlets all over Cecil County. However, most of the Guardian’s readers obtain it for free at restaurants and convenience stores.
A week ago, Broomell launched into a brief public tirade against county attorney Norman Wilson on the legal ads issue, claiming that his legal advice—including citation of a Circuit Court judge’s ruling that the Guardian qualified for publication of legal ads—amounted to “incompetence” or he was “negligent” in his duties. Her outburst was quickly questioned by fellow Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2), who declared a “point of order” several times before Board President James Mullin (R-1) eventually defused the situation by saying a ‘personnel’ matter should be discussed behind closed doors.
In recent conversations with Cecil Times, Broomell has complained that she does not get credit for saving taxpayers’ money or doing the right thing. As we told her—with a real pat on the back—yes, she was right that the Guardian did not cross all the T’s in its bid for legal ads, as it ultimately turned out. But if the Guardian had not gotten into the fray, the Whig would have had no competitive incentive to cut its monopolistic ad rates.
We also told her that she has many interesting ideas but the problem is not what she hopes to accomplish, but the way she goes about it. Calling people names, demanding that fellow commissioners vote immediately on her proposals with nothing in writing before them, and accusing others of ethical misconduct without clearly documented evidence does not render her omnipotent or even modestly correct.
[See also previous Cecil Times report on political attacks by Commissioner Dunn against The Guardian and some fellow county Commissioners over the legal ad issue, here: