Cecil County Politics: Exec, Council Face-Offs; Strange Times in Elkton
It was one of the strangest political events of this election season Tuesday night when candidates for Cecil County Executive and County Council met in their final face-off before the upcoming election. Sweepingly broad questions, given to the candidates in advance, prompted mostly scripted responses but there were a few odd moments when one candidate suggested people vote for his opponent and another said he might “resign” if people didn’t like the job he was doing.
The forum, organized by the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce and held at Elkton High School, drew a crowd of about 125 people, mostly supporters of individual candidates and members of the Cecil County Patriots, the local “tea party” group that held its own candidates’ event earlier in the campaign season.
Candidates were given time for opening and closing statements and in between responded to several broad questions—such as, what do you “see as your role in charter government,” “what is your demonstrated leadership experience,” what is “the state of Cecil County today” and an inquiry about the “future of Cecil County” and its business climate.
Despite the bland format of the questions, Democrat Pam Howard, the former county treasurer who is running for county executive, managed to take off the gloves to challenge her Republican opponent, Commissioner Tari Moore, on building “consensus” between the county executive and the new County Council that will replace the current board of commissioners.
Howard said she had experience working across partisan lines and had no political agenda, and would be best suited to “build consensus” with the new council. But, Howard added, “I know when to compromise and when to stand firm.”
In contrast, “So far she has not been able to achieve consensus,” Howard said of Moore, who has usually been on the losing side of a 3-2 voting split of the current commissioners.
“It’s not for lack of trying,” Moore responded. Moore said that as county executive she would “work very co-operatively with the County Council.”
Howard said she would look forward to working positively with Moore if Moore retained her council seat (District 2) but noted that if Moore wins the executive contest, the fate of her council seat could lead to “four more years of deadlock” in county government.
If Moore wins the executive seat, her council slot will be filled from a list of three names drawn up by the county’s Republican Central Committee, which is controlled by the Smipkin political organization led by state Del. Michael Smigiel and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, both R-36. A Smipkin choice could serve as a new member of the “Three Amigos” majority faction of the five member board/Council, filling in for Commissioner James Mullin (R-1)– who lost his GOP primary bid for re-election– to vote with the other Amigos whose terms do not expire until 2014: Commissioners Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3), both of whom formerly worked for Smigiel.
A three-member Smipkin voting majority could stymie the county executive’s legislative agenda, but would not have the four votes needed to over-ride the executive’s veto of council-passed legislation that the executive opposed.
“We must break the gridlock that has been crippling our county,” Howard said. “We must have a stable and professional government.”
(Fact Check: Howard was in error in predicting “four” years of potential deadlock rather than two years, since the Moore seat would be up for election, along with the Dunn and Broomell seats, in 2014.)
Moore emphasized that, as county executive, she would present a positive “face” for the county in dealings with Annapolis and cited her service as a board member of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) for two years. “Keep your expectations high,” she said. “You deserve an excellent county executive to serve you.”
Moore said she had “supported” her husband’s military career in the past and had learned how to “begin again” in a new location and new job, which taught her “how to think outside the box.” Moore served as a local legislative analyst and Olympics aide in Utah before coming to Cecil County, where she served as executive director of the county Chamber for several years before running for Commissioner.
Howard, an accountant, served three terms as the independently-elected Treasurer of Cecil County until she lost by a handful of votes to Republican Bill Feehley in the 2010 election. (The Treasurer’s position will be abolished under Charter government and replaced by a Director of Finance selected by the county executive, with council ratification.) Since the election, she has been working in a finance position with the city of Aberdeen in Harford County.
“I have been in management most of my career,” Howard said, citing financial management experience in both local government and the private sector in addition to her 12 years as county Treasurer. She cited her budget and financial management skills that uncovered two cases of theft and fraud that she brought to legal authorities for successful criminal prosecution while Treasurer. “I have zero tolerance for fraud and waste,” Howard said.
Moore said that top priorities for her administration would be to “continue the war on drugs” in Cecil County, fiscal responsibility in government, being an “advocate” for business and protection of private property rights.
Since the county Sheriff is elected independently, and will continue to be under charter government, the county council and even the county executive cannot dictate law enforcement priorities, although the county government does provide most of the budget funds to the Sheriff. But in the current Fiscal 2013 county budget, the commissioners voted unanimously last May to approve a budget that denied Sheriff Barry Janney’s request for two new deputies dedicated to drug crime, including one senior deputy tasked to investigation of complex prescription drug fraud and abuse cases and one position for the Drug Task Force.
Meanwhile, the County Council race in District 5—which pits incumbent Commissioner Robert Hodge, a Republican, against James Crouse, a Democrat—had some odd moments during the candidates’ forum.
Hodge, a businessman and farmer completing his first four-year term as a commissioner, said he had been “in the trenches” of county government and criticized what he said had been a climate of “other commissioners who don’t trust anybody” and are “out for a witch hunt.” Hodge, like Moore, has been on the losing end of the Three Amigos majority for the past two years.
He said he had fought against such divisiveness and would continue to speak out, but, Hodge added, “If you don’t like what I’m doing, don’t vote for me” and “vote for Jim.”
Crouse, the former multi-term mayor of Elkton and former Elkton town councilman, said his priorities on the new Council would be “fairness, fiscal accountability” and he advocated “affordable housing” and a political climate of “positive and not negative agendas” and “not stressing our differences.”
Crouse, who currently works as an executive with NBRS Financial and previously worked in management at Union Hospital, has been out of local government service for more than a decade. He repeatedly said “experience counts” in urging voters to support him.
Hodge cited his business ownership experience, having “made payroll” for employees, and said he would bring a businessman’s sharp eye and “common sense” to county expenditures and priorities. “Yes, Mr. Crouse, experience matters,” Hodge said.
In District 1, Dr. Alan McCarthy, a Republican who unseated incumbent Mullin in the GOP primary, made an off-beat suggestion for a candidate seeking votes for his first run for county office. If a “preponderance” of the voters decided at some point in the future that they disagreed with his actions, he said he would “resign.”
McCarthy, a veterinarian who still holds medical licenses in five states and is also a Chesapeake City businessman, said he had no partisan agenda and “no preconceived notions of government.” He said it would be a key priority to foster an “open and honest” climate in county government, in which there was no “fear” of “retaliation.”
McCarthy said his key priorities would be pushing for infrastructure in the growth corridor to foster economic development and job creation, as well as provision of key services to citizens such as public safety—police and fire protection– and education.
But, he added, “I will not cast my vote as a county councilman to raise the property tax rate.”
His opponent, Democrat Pamela Bailey, a secretary at the county’s school of technology, said that if elected, the council would be her “only job.” She said she would be “glad to make home visits, site visits” to discuss issues with constituents.
In Tuesday’s forum, Bailey also cribbed a long-standing policy position of Howard, to phase out the business inventory or “personal property” tax imposed on businesses in the county as a way to encourage business development. And Bailey said she would approach county spending with “a zero line budget.”
Toward the end of the forum, a question from the audience was posed to Bailey about whether she would support a proposal—from Commissioner Broomell—to create a staff position of a county “auditor.”
“To retain the county auditor?” Bailey asked.
Joyce Bowlsbey, moderator of the forum, explained that there was no staff auditor currently but that there was a proposal to hire an auditor reporting to the County Council under the new charter government.
After the backgrounder explanation, Bailey declared, “I’m not for that.”
All in all, it was an odd political night in Elkton. We can usually come up with a Moody Blues song to describe just about anything in the universe, and Tuesday’s forum was a clear winner for “Strange Times” (1999), including the lyrics:
“We’re living in strange times, strange times, strange times/ What do we need, what do we hunger for, who holds the secrets, who will know?”
The “Question ” (1970) will be answered when the ballots are counted in less than two weeks.