Back to School Time for Cecil County Council; Meffley Goes to Head of the Class

December 6, 2018


It was a bit like the first day of school when the new Cecil County Council met this week for its first worksession with two new members and, at least for a few minutes, no teacher in charge of the classroom. There was also a nearby hall monitor, trying to lay down some different groundrules for the new school term. But the students quickly put themselves in charge.

Meeting on 12/4/2018 for the first time after the November general election, the Cecil County Council unanimously selected Bob Meffley (R-1) as President of the five-member le gislative body and fended off a bid by the county executive to rein in council members’ roles on outside organizations’ boards. It probably won’t be the last time there’s some friction between the new Council and the executive’s office.

Meffley, a two-year veteran of the Council, had declared his intention to seek the panel’s presidency, to replace the retiring Joyce Bowlsbey, early last month. A new member, Bill Coutz (R-2), who won election to Bowlsbey’s seat on the Council, was also interested in the post and cited his leadership experience in business and various non-profit boards.

From the outset, Meffley had the strong support of Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), who was elected two years ago along with Meffley and has forged a close council bond with him. That left a key role for Councilor George Patchell (R-4), the longest serving Council member but who was not interested in taking over the President’s job, due to his other commitments as the executive director of the Cecil County YMCA and involvement in youth programs. Patchell easily won re-election to his County Council seat this year.

Patchell had indicated he was inclined to back the veteran Meffley, with whom he had forged a working relationship, sources said. So that left Meffley with the three votes, including his own, needed to win. And when it came time to formally cast the ballots, Gregory nominated Meffley and Patchell seconded the motion. The tally was then unanimous, with all members voting for Meffley.

Meffley returned the favor to nominate Gregory as vice-president of the Council and again there was a unanimous vote to ratify the nomination.

County Attorney Jason Allison took on the hall monitor role when he sought to rein in Council members’ roles as “ex-officio” liaisons to various outside organizations’ boards, such as the county Firemen’s Association, as well as the Cecil County Planning Commission and other panels. He noted that the county’s Charter made no provision for Council members to sit as “ex-officio” or non-voting members of such boards and commissions.

“I’m of the opinion that items that are not… set forth in law…fall to the executive branch,” Allison said. He also cited Charter provisions dealing with “non-interference” and suggested that council members could be stepping on the legal toes of the county executive’s authority.

County Council Manager James Massey disagreed, saying that the Council had consulted its own attorney who had a different view. And Council members were clearly unwilling to give up their outside roles, saying the process helped bring needed information to the Council. So they ignored Allison’s directive and went ahead with naming Council members to represent the lawmakers at various boards and commissions.

“I think that’s our due diligence,” Gregory said, and there is “a lot of benefit” for the full Council to hear from individual members about what the outside boards are doing or thinking.

Meffley said it was important for council members to find about possible problems or issues “before things blow up and get in the papers.”

Patchell said the core issue was for members not to make promises that cannot be legally kept. “The key is not to give them the [idea] that there is something we can do as a council body that we cannot do.” In the past, “in some cases, council members have blurred the line.”

He said that council members need to “educate” local groups and citizens about how charter government really works and that the council does not have legal authority to increase spending or budgets for various programs or agencies.

Patchell hit the fire hydrant with the verbal hose in his observations. The move to rein in Council members’ role on outside organizations boards came about, sources said, after then-Councilor Dan Schneckenburger parlayed his role as the County Council’s representative to the county’s Fireman’s Association into a political club against County Executive Alan McCarthy earlier this year and suggesting that the Council could, and should, take action to give the companies more money. McCarthy defeated Schneckenburger in the election for County Executive two years ago, and Schneckenburger has been nursing his political wounds ever since.

Leaders of some of the fire companies were angry that McCarthy’s Fiscal 2019 budget did not provide money for all the equipment purchases sought by the volunteers. Instead, he chose to boost the county’s payments to a firefighter pension program by nearly $1 million, to put the pension system on a firm financial footing as a trust fund that could be counted on to pay benefits to retired volunteer firefighters. In the past, the pensions were funded on a pay-as-you go annual appropriation, which did not guarantee benefits to current or future retirees.

The County Council does not have the legal power under the Charter to increase spending and can only cut the executive’s budget. Schneckenburger also demanded that a budget amendment be offered, after the new budget was enacted, to boost spending. But under the Charter, only the executive has the power to propose a budget amendment.

Schneckenburger sought to ride the firetruck to re-election in the June26 GOP primary election, but he was soundly defeated by Al Miller, the longtime president of the county Fair board, a farmer and farm equipment sales executive.

Miller, attending his first Council worksession on Tuesday, was named to be the Council’s representative to the Firemen’s Association. Miller, an affable and well-known figure in the county where his family roots go back generations, seemingly doesn’t know, or care to know, the meaning of the words “power grab” and is likely to be a calming influence.

With Meffley at the helm of the new Council, there will no doubt be some trial and error in conducting legislative business and moving the meeting process along. He freely admitted as much, saying that Bowlsbey left behind “big shoes” to fill.

Bowlsbey, who headed a commission that wrote the county Charter and shepherded it to approval by county voters, sat in the audience at Tuesday’s worksession with a folder containing gag cue cards for Meffley. One read “stop” and another read “good job.” She waved the “good job” card at Meffley as he gaveled the meeting to an end.

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