Big Decisions Loom but Cecil County Council Still Stuck in Rules– Votes for Bathroom Breaks?
What a difference a few months make. The Wild West, rhetorical free-for-all of the old Cecil County Board of Commissioners, and the chaotic early days of the new County Council, is morphing into a highly structured panel that is still finding its way among the fine points of its role under Charter government. But at the same time, crucial decisions loom that the panel has yet to address in any substantive manner.
Cecil County Executive Tari Moore presented her first budget under the new Charter government last Friday 3/1/13, but the Council, in its first Tuesday worksession meeting on 3/5/13 after the budget unveiling, had but a few words on the subject and they were confined to technicalities of scheduling for hearings and introduction of enabling resolutions. Moore’s budget poses some significant questions about policy and priorities—especially her decision to tap $4 million in county reserve funds to finance annual operating programs—but the Council was essentially silent on that key issue. [SEE Cecil Times Report on Moore’s budget proposal here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/03/cecil-county-exec-moore-unveils-budget-with-tax-freeze-sheriff-staff-boost-increases-for-schools-budget-magic-relies-on-4-million-hit-on-reserve-fund/ ]
Some of the differences in Council operating procedures are quite welcome. In contrast to the old style of ex-Commissioners President James Mullin (R-1)—who often declined to call for a recorded vote and seemed to be conducting séances to read the mind of the ever-silent Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3)—the new Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) and his selected Council Manager James Massey are calling for recorded votes on everything.
It got to the point of amusement on Tuesday when Hodge called for a vote on whether the Council should be allowed to take a five minute break (a bathroom visit hiatus) between the public worksession and a closed-door Council session on appointments to advisory panels.
The new County Council has been agonizing over operating procedures and rules for conducting its business, and a long list of potential rules was still not ratified on Tuesday, with yet another special “workshop” set to be held on the remaining issues. (Hodge declared that afternoon meetings on specific issues should be called “workshops” and not “worksessions” so as to avoid confusion with the regular Tuesday morning worksessions that directly pertain to pending legislative issues.)
One of the key points of contention aired on Tuesday, and in previous discussions, is a planned Council rule that a majority of the Council must agree before an individual Councilor may seek a legal opinion. A clear majority of the Council wants to retain that authority for the full council, but Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) wants to be able to get a legal opinion on her own, without other members’ concurrence.
Acknowledging the new political reality of the County Council in which she and Dunn are in the minority—but determined to press the point anyway—Broomell called for a vote even though she said she realized “I don’t think I have the votes.” She didn’t. The Council voted 3-2 against Broomell’s proposal to allow an individual Councilor to seek a legal opinion on her/his own.
“We should function as a body,” said Dr. Alan McCarthy (R-1), who voted against Broomell’s proposal. “We’d be caught in a quagmire where nothing would be accomplished,” he said, if individual Council members pursued separate legal agendas that cost taxpayers for such individual advice.
But Broomell said that requiring a majority vote before an individual Councilor could obtain a legal opinion on an issue would be “a way of controlling the message” to citizens.
Hodge said that the Council had to be mindful of the costs of legal opinions and getting lots of individual Councilor’s requests for opinions could “drive a county or Council attorney crazy.”
Other fine points of Council operating rules include a majority decision that citizens speaking up at Council meetings’ public comment sessions should only have to give their names and towns of residence, not their specific residential addresses. Broomell had called for specific addresses, but other Councilors worried that requiring such personal information might intimidate people from speaking out in public about issues before the Council.
Meanwhile, the Council decided on its own appointee, and chairman, for a Council redistricting panel. Based upon the 2010 federal Census, and Charter government provisions, the county must come up with re-drawn district lines for each of the five County Council districts. Since Council members are elected countywide, the fine points of the five council districts are not crucial, but the lines could be re-drawn on local addresses to stymie some potential candidates from running in the next Council election for three seats up for election in 2014.
The Council picked as its nominee and chairman of the redistricting panel William Harris, of Cecilton, a former president of the county Republican Club and an ordained minister. The remainder of the panel is to be evenly divided between nominees of the county’s Democratic and Republican Central Committees, with members picked from each of the five Council districts.
The Republican committee is controlled by allies of the Smipkin political organization run by state Del. Michael Smigiel and Sen. E.J. Pipkin, both R-36, who ran well-financed political campaigns against fellow Republicans Moore and Hodge in the last 2012 election. The GOP Central Committee picked Anna Maria Leonetti-Bluehler of Earleville (Dist.1); Phil Sneeringer, of Elkton (Dist. 2); Gerry Carpenter, of Elkton, (Dist.3); Jerry Roope, of Perryville, (Dist. 4); and Diane Carabetta, of Perryville, (Dist 5).
The county’s Democratic Central Committee picked a list of well-known names for its choices for the re-districting panel. Nominees were Betty Eliason, of Elkton (Dis. 1); Norman Wilson, of Elkton (Dist. 2); Bob Porter, of Elkton (Dist. 3); Pam Howard, of Port Deposit (Dist. 4); and James Crouse, of Elkton (Dist. 5).