Cecil County Council: Good News, No News and the Bad News Bears
The Cecil County Council had some good news from the county library, no news from the countyâs finance director and some Bad News Bears– growling about how to deal with misbehaving councilors– at a Tuesday worksession in Elkton.
First the good news: the Cecil County public library has produced a video highlighting the âbeautyâ of the county and its attractions to start-up businesses, focusing on the owners of a very successful entrepreneurial businessâOperative Experience, Inc.– that was incubated through the libraryâs small business development program.
Denise Davis, the library director, told the Council that the owners of the company have long credited the library with helping the start-up business to launch and grow into a successful venture. So she decided to interview the owners about their experiences and why they decided to locate the operation in Cecil County.
That resulted in a video, including still shots of the natural âbeautyâ of the county and commentary on the business benefits of the countyâs location close to urban centers, as well as a local workforce providing âintelligentâ and âsolidâ employees.
Working with the countyâs economic development office, the videoâtitled âBeautiful Cecil County: Your Business Belongsâ– will be used in a marketing campaign to attract new employers to the area. [SEE the video here: http://vimeo.com/73237693?utm_source=email&utm_medium=clip-transcode_complete-finished-20120100&utm_campaign=7701&email_id=Y2xpcF90cmFuc2NvZGVkfDVkYTczNDI1YmJmYWY0Y2E1ZmRmMWUzYzUxODAwZDYzODg5fDczNDQ4MzR8MTM3NzYyNDc0Mg%3D%3D ]
âThe image of the county is so inaccurate,â Davis said of the common misperceptions about Cecil County in the rest of the state. âThis really shows a creative, technologically advanced company,â she said. Lisa Webb, the countyâs economic development director, said, âPeople are doing very innovative things in this countyâ and that message needs to be conveyed to the broader business community around the state.
County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) said he was pleased with the initiative led by the library and said the system should continue to âeducate the citizens that you do more than book lending.â
(Hodge spearheaded a last-minute $100,000 cut in the libraryâs Fiscal 2014 budget request several months ago, a move that drew criticism from many citizen supporters of the public libraries.)
The budget also came up in the no news is bad news category, as least as far as Hodge was concerned. He tried repeatedly to get county Director of Finance Winston Robinson to disclose the amount of the countyâs current âfund balanceââor reserve funds that are not allocated to specific programs in the budget. The county government tapped $4 million of the âfund balanceâ money to balance the Fiscal 2014 budget and freeze the property tax rate.
Hodge said he believed that even after tapping that $4 million, the fund balance âhasnât been eaten away [and] itâs actually grownâ in recent months due to higher than anticipated revenues from income taxes and other receipts. He tried repeatedly to get Robinson to confirm that point and provide even a rough estimate or a preliminary figure with âwhatever footnotes you wantâ to qualify it.
But Robinson, an accountant, stood his ground and refused to offer any information on the status of the fund balance until a formal audit is completed in October. A frustrated Hodge complained that Councilors were aware of the financial trend in broad terms, âbut Mr. Robinson wonât come out and say it.â
Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4), who has opposed new spending and bond financing of projects such as the new school of technology on the Basell site in Elkton, chimed in, telling Robinson he should âgive us a ballparkâ figure and said âwe shouldnât have to wait so long.â
Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said the budget process was âgruelingâ and that citizens want âsome simple explanations,â especially in light of the recent controversy over the Councilâs approval of a $70 million bond authority package for a variety of projects including the tech school and upgrades of the Seneca Point sewage treatment plant. (The state is expected to grant the county a $20 million loan for the sewage plant that will reduce the bonding package to $50 million.)
Robinson did say that the county was planning to pay off the $50 million in bonds in about 10 years, which he called a âvery aggressiveâ schedule to retire the bond debt.
The sparring between the Council and Robinson underscored the differencesâboth substantive and politicalâbetween the former Commissioner form of government and the new Charter system.
In the past, the independently-elected county Treasurer was in charge of all things financial and gave monthly reports to the Commissioners on the state of county finances. Pam Howard, the Treasurer for many years, had political savvy from having to run for elected office herself andâalthough she, too, is an accountantâmanaged to give the other elected officials the kind of updates and trend analysis they wanted. (Under Charter government, the independent Treasurer position was abolished and the new Director of Finance is appointed by the County Executive.)
Howard defeated Robinson, a political newcomer, and North East Mayor Robert McKnight in the Democratic primary for County Executive last year. But Howard was defeated in the general election by Tari Moore, who ran as a Republican but shifted to âunaffiliatedâ after the election.
Meanwhile, the Council also did an encore and expanded performance of its Bad News Bears show with another discussion of proposals to curb bad behavior by some members of the Council during public meetings. [SEE previous Cecil Times report on proposed bad behavior sanctions and ‘time outs’ here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/09/cecil-county-council-seeks-to-curb-food-fights-with-possible-time-outs-for-members-misbehavior/ ]
After discussions at previous worksessions, the Council received a proposed 10-step program (unlike the usual 12-steps of other recovery programs) to address and punish councilors who violate the broad rules of decorum previously adopted by the Council as part of its âpolicies and proceduresâ manual. That manualâs broad guidelines have proven inadequate to deal with the increasingly hostile work environment of Council meetings, so Council President Hodge asked the council manager and county attorney to draft specific, and escalating, punishments for violations of proper decorum.
A minor violation will require the Council president to âsimply rap lightlyâ on his gavel; if a councilor ârepeatedly questions the motives of other Council membersâ or âpersists in speaking on completely irrelevant matters in debate,â the Council president or other members can âcall the member to order.â
Then, if the Bad Bear Councilor persists, other Council members may seek a âpenalty,â ranging from a mandated apology to expulsion from a meeting. Several of the âstepsâ specify how the expulsion process would work, including the potential appointment of a sergeant at arms to âescort the offender to the door.â
Broomell, whose frequent outbursts and attacks against fellow Council members have prompted the review of new decorum rules, objected to the proposals. She also accused fellow Councilor Alan McCarthy (R-1)âwhose outspoken riposte to Broomell several weeks ago silenced her usual verbal dominance of worksessions– of âsmirkingâ during the Tuesday discussion. [SEE previous Cecil Times report on McCarthyâs comments here: http://ceciltimes.com/2013/09/cecil-county-council-let-them-eat-cake-broomell-melts-as-mccarthy-slices-her-venomous-icing-hodges-double-dip-dare/ ]
Broomell reiterated her view that the new proposals were designed to censor and silence critics, such as herself, who disagree with the positions of the Council majority.
Councilor Bowlsbey said she thought that Hodge had been âtoo lenientâ in allowing Broomell to attack fellow councilors without sanctions in the past and âreally letting some of the ranting and raving to go onâŚâ
âHealthy debate is good,â Hodge said. But recent discussions have degenerated into âquestioning the characterâ and âmotivesâ of colleagues, he said. Councilors should ânot make it personal and donât go negative on people,â he added.
Council members will review the proposals and offer potential revisions before the list is offered as a formal revision to the Council procedures manual.