Councilor Gregory Defends Taking Schools $ While Voting on Budget, Cites AG Opinion in Carroll Co; Cecil Charter, Ethics Rules Conflict?

November 5, 2019

A CECIL TIMES Special Report

Cecil County Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) delivered an impassioned defense Tuesday of her paid job as a substitute teacher in county schools while voting on budgets including education as a member of the Council, saying a state Attorney General opinion in a Carroll County case supported her dual roles. However, Cecil County’s Charter and Ethics Code specifically bar Council members or public officials from working for any other “department” that receives county funds.

The Attorney General’s opinion Gregory cited held there was no “incompatibility” under state law between a Carroll County Commissioner holding that post while also working as a part-time teacher for county schools. However, the opinion specified it was only reviewing state law and refused to address county laws or ethics codes, which the AG said were up to local authorities to interpret and enforce.

During the Council members’ comment period at the end of the 11/5/2019 morning worksession, Gregory announced that she wanted to address an issue that has been brewing “behind the scenes” and to contradict anyone “suggesting that I’ve been engaged in wrongdoing.” She said she was raising the issue of her schools job in public in the interests of “transparency” and said she would “rather just deal with it head-on.”

She cited her situation as a single parent raising three children while trying to balance the need to support her family with her duties on the Council, which is considered a part-time job. She said her experience as a teacher enhanced her ability to understand educational needs of the schools and was an asset to her Council role. “Being a teacher is who I am,” Gregory declared emphatically.

Gregory has filed for re-election to her seat in the 2020 elections, seeking another four-year term in office. Donald Harmer, a local liquor store owner, the longtime leader of the county’s Parks and Recreation board and a current member of the county’s Planning Commission, has filed to run against Gregory in the Republican primary election.

During her first term in office, Gregory, who serves as vice-chair of the County Council, has voted against two out of three county budgets, after proposing cuts to county parks programs and Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) spending that were not supported by a majority of fellow councilors. At the same time as she was voting on the county budget which includes spending for CCPS, Gregory worked as a substitute teacher and received a CCPS salary in each of the past three years.

According to information obtained by CECIL TIMES under the state’s public information act, Gregory was paid a total of $14,479 by CCPS during the last three fiscal years since taking her Council seat: $3,178.98 in Fiscal 2017; $6,181.35 in Fiscal 2018; and $5,118.43 in Fiscal 2019. (CCPS pays substitutes who hold a bachelor’s degree, such as Gregory, at a rate of $17.42 per hour for a seven-and-a-half-hour workday. Other substitutes who hold just a high school diploma or GED equivalent are paid $13.06 per hour.)

Gregory reported employment by the schools on her financial disclosure statement, required of all local elected officials on an annual basis. The forms do not require disclosure of the salary or other specific amounts received from such employment. On her most recent filing, covering the 2018 calendar year, Gregory listed her CCPS employment in the section of the form requiring disclosure of work for “entities doing business with Cecil County.” In that section, which asks if the entity is “regulated” by “your agency,” Gregory wrote in that the schools’ “budget approved by county government.” In other sections of the form, she also listed employment by Nexus Online Learning and the “Maryland Republican Committee.” (On her disclosure form for 2017, CCPS was her only listed source of outside income.)

According to state Board of Elections records, Gregory was also a paid campaign staffer of the Republican State Central Committee of Maryland during the 2018 general election campaign, receiving six payments from August through November totaling $6,045. She also received $504 for travel reimbursements. Gregory has said she was working on Gov. Hogan’s re-election campaign in 2018 but she was not paid directly by his campaign committee.

County Council members receive a $25,000 a year salary under provisions of the county’s Charter for what is considered a part-time position.

In the County Council’s Fiscal 2018 budget deliberations, Gregory advocated $6 million in spending cuts, including a $1 million reduction in the schools budget. But a majority of the Council rejected most of her proposals or they were cast by the wayside after information from county officials showed some proposals were based on misinformation or faulty assumptions.

At least in theory, a $1 million cut in the CCPS budget could have forced the independently elected school board to take cost-cutting actions such as not hiring new full-time teachers and instead relying more on lower paid substitutes. But the school board has broad discretion to decide on its own how it manages its budget, within the framework of the bottom-line spending allocation provided by the county government.

Under the county Charter the Council is generally not permitted to increase spending above the levels proposed by the County Executive. But there is one major exception: county public schools. Former CCPS Superintendent D’Ette Devine made an appeal to the Council to boost school funds above the county executive’s proposal shortly before she retired, but the Council declined to do so.

In budget deliberations, Gregory has repeatedly opposed installation of artificial turf playing fields at county high schools, due to costs, and at one point threatened to withhold a line item funds transfer request within the schools’ budget until CCPS officials gave her detailed information on their reserve funds account.

So while collecting a salary from CCPS, Gregory has not recused herself from County Council budget matters involving the schools and has been active in broad decisions affecting her other employer.

Her dual roles raise questions under both the county Charter and Ethics Code, local issues which the state AG opinion specifically declined to address in the Carroll County case.

Under the Cecil County Charter, (Sec. 205), “While serving as a Council member, no Council member may:(1) Hold any other elected public office;(2) Be employed in an appointed office or any nonelected position in any public agency, department, board, commission, or other public body that receives funds through the budget or is involved in the public business of the County; or(3) Receive compensation for serving in an appointed office or any nonelected position in any public agency, department, board, commission, or other public body that receives funds through the budget or is involved in the public business of the County.

In addition, the Cecil County Ethics code: prohibits “Except as permitted by regulation of the Commission when the interest is disclosed or when the employment does not create a conflict of interest or appearance of conflict, an official or employee may not: Be employed by or have a financial interest in any entity, Subject to the authority of the official or employee or the County agency, board, commission with which the official or employee is affiliated; or Hold any other employment relationship that would impair the impartiality or independence of judgment of the official or employee”.

After joining the County Council, Gregory was informally advised by some knowledgeable officials that taking a salary from CCPS was in conflict with the Charter and the Ethics Code, sources told Cecil Times. It is not known if she sought an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission on the issue, and such advisory guidance is considered confidential under county law. And under county law, any complaint that might be filed with the Ethics Commission is confidential and not subject to public disclosure, although the subject of any complaint is advised of the filing and is also given the name of the person who filed a complaint.

The 2016 state Attorney General’s opinion cited by Gregory involved a Carroll County Commissioner who also worked as a county teacher on a part-time basis. Carroll County does not have a Charter and lacks the independent powers that a Charter Government has under state law. In addition, the Commissioners there serve as non-voting “ex-officio” members of the county school board.

The opinion focused only on state law and common law tradition on the issue of “incompatibility” between duties of a commissioner and his other employment and held there was no “incompatibility” between the two roles. The opinion noted there was no state law barring a county commissioner from also working for local schools.

But the opinion went on to note that “ethical questions may arise from time to time in particular circumstances, as would be the case for any commissioner when an issue arises that might affect the commissioner’s personal interests.,” However the opinion also said it “does not address [the Commissioner’s] duties under the ethics provisions applicable to his positions.” The AG also said it was a matter of policy of his office not to render opinions on local county codes or ethics rules, leaving those interpretations up to local agencies or officials.

(Gregory did not reiterate her remarks at the evening legislative session of the County Council. CECIL TIMES has contacted Gregory for further comment on her remarks and will update this report upon her response.)

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