Cecil County Council: Prayer, Politics and Websites
It was almost a trip down bad memories lane in Elkton Tuesday when members of the Cecil County Council got into some heated exchanges on whether to offer a prayer to open future meetings, what to put on the county website, and the credibility of one Councilor’s personal blog.
It could have been a revival of the weekly drama of the pre-Charter Board of Commissioners, except this time the tables were turned and Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) was all alone– without her usual, but usually silent, ally since Councilor Michael Dunn (R-3) was absent. Dunn was “not feeling well,” according to Council President Robert Hodge (R-5).
Broomell had asked that the Council include in its proposed handbook of “policies and procedures”—a project the panel has been belaboring for the past four months—a new provision to establish an “invocation” or prayer to start each Council meeting. She had directed the Council Manager, James Massey, to draft a proposal that would comply with court rulings on separation of church and state.
The proposal presented Tuesday provides that “Council members will take turns giving the invocation at the beginning of each legislative session” and “the invocation may be a prayer or moment of silence.” Furthermore, Councilors would have the “responsibility to craft an invocation that he/she deems appropriate, which should refrain from overt sectarian references.” The proposal also said the Councilors should not “refer to a specific deity, such as Jesus, Allah.” The “prayer leader” also “must not ask audience to participate or respond to a prayer request.”
“I think it will be a positive influence,” Broomell said of Council prayers. She stated that a citizen had informed her that the “Alliance Defending Freedom” group would be willing to defend the county against any legal challenges to the prayer policy. “If your real concern is being challenged” in court, she added, the Alliance group would handle the legal defense. She then asked that materials outlining that position be placed on the county government’s website.
The Alliance Defending Freedom is a Scottsdale, Arizona-based organization that bills itself as a legal “ministry” that uses a network of “Christian lawyers” to litigate issues involving religious freedom and advancing the group’s opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Whether the county government, or taxpayers, would want to entrust their legal defense and financial liability to an unnamed lawyer affiliated with the out-of-state group is an open question.
Entrusting the choice of a prayer to an individual Councilor was a major concern of some of the other members of the Council Tuesday.
“I’m all for prayer,” said Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2). But “I don’t want that prayer to be used as a bully pulpit for any councilor’s position on a particular issue.”
Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1) said that, even with the best intent, an individual Councilor might err and cross the line of legally permissible invocations and the county could be held liable in a court action. “You’re just creating an entire set of problems.”
He said he favored having a moment of silence at the start of Council meetings. “Everybody can pray, or curse, under their breath as they choose,” McCarthy said. Later in the meeting, he read a quotation from Thomas Jefferson on the importance of maintaining a separation of church and state.
Broomell suggested that the Council hold a special workshop on the prayer proposal, but McCarthy objected and offered a motion to NOT hold such a workshop. His motion was approved on a 3-1 vote, with Broomell objecting. Consequently, the Council will vote next week on the procedures issue and Hodge suggested that councilors offer whatever options they preferred, such as a moment of silence, for the Council to consider.
Throughout the worksession in discussions of a variety of issues, Broomell sought posting of documents supporting her positions on the county government website and she also gave multiple plugs for her own personal blog/website.
(Broomell’s blog/website recently added an authority line—which is required for candidates for political office. Broomell’s County Council seat is up for election in 2014 but she is widely expected to run for a General Assembly seat in either of two newly-redistricted Cecil/Harford counties districts for Delegate or Senator. In recent months, Broomell has peppered her Council statements with glowing, approving comments about all things Harford County.)
Responding to one of Broomell’s requests to put documents supporting her views on the county website, Bowlsbey commented, “I get concerned when individual Council people” ask county staffers to put things on the official website, “for little or no reason.” So “why don’t you put it on your blog, Diana?”
Hodge said, “I think it’s a mistake to throw things on the website” of the county government that are not official resolutions or actions taken by the full council. “It’s just stuff,” he said.
And Hodge offered his own disclaimer on Broomell’s blog. “I just want to warn people,” Hodge said, that Broomell’s blog is “loaded with opinions” and “in my opinion, it’s loaded with misleading and factual misrepresentations.”
Broomell got Internet-incensed: “I think you should back up what your statements are.”
Meanwhile, a majority of the County Council previously decided, in multiple closed door sessions, not to hire its own attorney but instead to use the services of the County Attorney, Jason Allison, and reserve the right to hire an outside counsel on an as-needed basis. Hodge said Tuesday that the Council will pass a formal resolution to ratify that decision at its next evening legislative meeting.
But Broomell objected, as she has in the past, saying that since Allison was hired by the County Executive and could be fired by her, he had a conflict of interest in rendering advice to the Council.
“We know you don’t like it,” Hodge told Broomell. “You said you don’t like it,” he added, but a “majority decided” to take a “different direction.”
In a humorous commentary on the worksession, Bowlsbey recounted how she met recently with students at a county elementary school and led them through a decision-making exercise as though they were members of the County Council. The children were initially disinterested but quickly became engaged in the exercise.
“Politics is boring,” she said. “Well, not always, especially if you come to these meetings.”