Cecil County Council Ignores Legal Rules; Taxpayers Pay $ for Jackie Gregory’s Dinner Events, Legal Questions on Dual Jobs

January 6, 2020

A CECIL TIMES Special Report

(With legal footnotes)

Cecil County Council member Jackie Gregory (R-5) has continued to collect a salary from county public schools in the current budget year, despite questions of county Charter and ethics rules barring Council members from paid employment with other county agencies. And she has also claimed reimbursement for tickets she bought to local civic dinners and banquets, despite county law prohibiting sending such bills to taxpayers, according to a CECIL TIMES investigation.

In addition, the County Council has ignored its own rules for obtaining legal opinions from its outside legal counsel, including expenses incurred to review Gregory’s school employment status as well as private legal consultations between Gregory and the Council’s lawyer and private consultations with Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2), according to a review of invoices for legal services by John Downs, the Council’s lawyer, and Downs’ response to a Cecil Times public records request under state law.

The county also paid an invoice for Coutz for a ticket to an Elkton dinner event.

Furthermore, the issues have been the subject of recent closed-door meetings of the full Council, at which Council President Bob Meffley (R-2) said he “laid down the law” to Gregory and Coutz that future requests for payment for social event tickets would only be honored if he determines that a group requested a Council member attend to present an official proclamation or certificate. (However, county rules do not provide for any exceptions to the no event tickets payment provisions, other than permission for attendance at the state conference of the Maryland Association of Counties.)

Meanwhile, Gregory, who is seeking re-election to her Council post in the 2020 elections, continued to work as a substitute teacher for Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) this fall, even as questions were raised about her past receipt of a teaching salary while sitting on the County Council and voting on CCPS budgets. In the current Fiscal 2020 budget year, Gregory’s has earned a CCPS salary of $2,377.83 so far, as of 12/11/2019.

According to information previously obtained by CECIL TIMES under the state’s public information act, Gregory was also paid a total of $14,479 by CCPS during the three previous 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.)

[SEE previous CECIL TIMES Special Report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2019/11/councilor-gregory-defends-taking-cecil-co-schools-while-voting-on-budget-cites-ag-opinion-in-carroll-county-cecil-charter-ethics-rules-pose-conflicts/ ]

At issue are provisions of the county Charter and Ethics Code that specifically bar Council members or other public officials from working for any other “department” that receives county funds. (SEE Footnote #3 below)

Gregory insisted at a Council worksession in early November, 2019 that there was nothing wrong with her dual employment and cited a state Attorney General legal opinion involving a Carroll County commissioner. But the opinion specifically refused to address local laws and ethics codes, and Cecil County, as a Charter government, has the power to enact such laws and codes that a commissioner county does not. It now also turns out, according to new documents obtained by Cecil Times, that Cecil County taxpayers were asked to pay legal bills in October to review the issues surrounding Gregory’s employment status, without the proper written documentation to incur such an expense.

Also in 2019, Gregory claimed reimbursement for tickets she bought to attend dinners and banquets sponsored by local organizations– despite county legal rules that specifically ban payments for such events– according to invoices newly obtained by Cecil Times.

She could have just spent personal funds, or charged the expenses against her political campaign account, especially since she is running for re-election. State campaign finance laws clearly allow a candidate or elected official to purchase tickets to community events, at which they meet and talk with constituents, with the cost paid by their campaign finance committee.

But instead, Gregory sought, and obtained $181 in taxpayer reimbursements for tickets to at least three events in the past year, according to invoices. She received county government payments of $75 for a 3/2/2019 Mardi Gras party sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club of Harford County, which also includes Cecil County youth programs. She also received a $60 payment for her attendance at a “Casablanca Casino Night” for the CASA program (Court Appointed Special Advocates for children) on 9/7/2019. And she also obtained a $46 payment for a “crab crawl” food event benefitting the Friends of the Library on 9/14/2019. (She also purchased a ticket for a companion to attend the events but did not seek repayment of the extra ticket’s cost.)

The County Council Rules of Procedure specify that “Expenses to attend fundraisers, social or recreational events will not be reimbursed. Attendance at retirements or honorary banquets will not be reimbursed.” [See Footnote #2 below]

The county also paid an 11/17/2018 invoice for Coutz to cover the cost of a $35 ticket to the Elkton Chamber and Alliance dinner honoring its small business person of the year.

Asked by Cecil Times if they had submitted invoices for reimbursements of ticket costs to local community dinners or banquets in 2019, Councilors George Patchell (R-4) and Al Miller (R-3) said they had not. Both men said they had only put in for mileage and related reimbursements for the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) twice a year conferences, which are specifically allowed under county law.

Meanwhile, the County Council’s outside legal counsel, John Downs, has been consulted and fees incurred without the Council going through the proper procedures for seeking legal advice. Under the Council’s Policy and Procedures manual and county law, all requests for legal advice are supposed to be submitted in writing and authorized by the Council President or a three-member majority of the Council. Reports from the attorney are supposed to be submitted in writing back to the Council. (SEE Footnote #1 below)

Instead, the Council has used an ad hoc, verbal system to seek legal advice, at the cost of $120 per hour, with some individual Councilors arranging one on one private sessions with the lawyer, according to invoices obtained by Cecil Times. In the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2019, Downs has so far been paid $4,042, through October.

According to invoices obtained by Cecil Times, Downs billed the county for two hours of legal research on 10/7/2019, for “research re. commissioner duties and charter requirements,” at a cost of $240. He also billed the county for a half-hour phone call on the following day to an unidentified person. His total bill for October was over $394, while his September invoice charged taxpayers $2,067.

Other invoices from Downs for legal services bill the county for $738 for August, 2019, including charges for phone calls with unnamed “council members“ and a separately listed call with “BC re: Council issues,” an apparent reference to Bill Coutz. The July invoice, totaling $843, included an hour-long meeting between the lawyer and Coutz. (Private discussions with Gregory and Coutz also figured in Downs’ billing in June with emails to the two and individual meetings incurring legal costs of $340.)

The October legal bill, including work on Gregory’s dual employment situation, highlights how the Council has not followed its own written procedures for incurring legal costs. In a response to Cecil Times, under the state’s Public Information Act, Downs acknowledge that his research on “commissioner duties and Charter requirements” was not authorized in writing as required. “No one specifically requested legal research,” Downs wrote. But, he added, “research became necessary in order to properly understand the written Opinion of the Attorney General” in the Carroll county case, which was ultimately cited by Gregory several weeks later.

Asked if a majority of the County Council or the Council president signed off on the legal research request, Downs replied “No” and said there were no written records of such a request. Nor was there a written “response” from the lawyer to the Council on his findings, which is specified as required under the Council’s rules.

Meffley told Cecil Times on Monday that he had verbally requested Downs to look into the matters involving Gregory’s dual employment but acknowledged he did not put the request in writing as required. He said he thought the request was made after Gregory spoke in public about her situation, but that was in November, after the legal review had already occurred.

Cecil Times contacted Councilor Gregory for comment on her expense reimbursements and legal research matters and will update this report upon her response.


[FOOTNOTE #1: Text of County Council’s Rules of Procedure on Legal Opinions

§ A387-5. Request for legal opinion. [Amended 9-19-2017]
A Pursuant to Section 213 of the Charter of Cecil County, Maryland, the County Council may employ legal advisors as it deems necessary to perform its functions by resolution, at its discretion and subject to the provisions of its budget or supplemental appropriations. The County Council may use legal counsel as contracted by the Council, or the County Attorney, if Council has not contracted an attorney.
B Any Council member(s) seeking a legal opinion must submit their request, in writing, to the Council President.
C. Requests to seek a legal opinion must be approved by the Council President or approved by three members of the Council before submission to the Council Attorney.
D. The Council Manager will submit the request to the Council Attorney and convey the response to Council members.


[FOOTNOTE #2- Text of Council Rules of Procedure on Expenses

1-6 Reimbursable Expenses Council members may be reimbursed for mileage to attend meetings, conferences, and training; which are directly related to representing the county or their district. Expenses to attend fundraisers, social or recreational events will not be reimbursed. Attendance at retirements or honorary banquets will not be reimbursed.


[FOOTNOTE #3: Charter and Ethics Code on Councilors Outside Employment]

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”.

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