Danielle Hornberger Sworn-in as Cecil County Exec; County Staff Purge Led by Schneckenburger, Administrator Nominee

December 7, 2020


Even before Danielle Hornberger raised her hand and took the oath of office as Cecil County’s new County Executive on Monday (12/7/2020), some county department heads were already locked out of their computers and within an hour or two ousted from the county administration building in Elkton. The purge was carried out by Dan Schneckenburger, nominated but not yet confirmed as required by the County Council for the Director of Administration position, sources said.

Schneckenburger is a two-time election loser in county politics, having served one term on the County Council but losing a bid for re-election to his seat two years ago and also losing a run for County Executive against Alan McCarthy four years ago. McCarthy lost his bid for re-election to Hornberger this year in the June Republican primary. (Hornberger won the November general election with 63.4 percent of the vote, to 36.3 percent for her Democratic opponent, Jeff Kase.)

Even before the June primary, Schneckenburger was in discussions about his role in a potential Hornberger administration, according to multiple social media postings by his wife. He had left the county about a year ago to take a job in Florida and, while ineligible to vote in this year’s elections here, according to Board of Elections records, kept up a political presence on social media to support Hornberger as well as her campaign mentor and financier, Rep. Andy Harris (R-1).

Harris also donated to Schneckenburger’s indebted campaign finance committee, shortly after his loss for County Council re-election to help pay off personal loans Schneckenburger had made to his own campaign. A $5,000 donation was logged, with some money used to repay the personal loan while $740 was transferred to the political committee of Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-35), Danielle’s husband. After filing 14 amendments to his annual finance report in the past few months, he finally closed the campaign account in mid-October, according to state Board of Elections records.

Danielle Hornberger named Schneckenburger to head her “transition team” several weeks ago and will formally present his name to the County Council on Tuesday to become Director of Administration, a post that requires confirmation by the Council. He will replace Al Wein, a 30-year veteran of local government who served as county administrator under both the former Commissioner form of government and the two county executives who served under the Charter form of government created a decade ago.

Wein submitted his retirement papers on Friday, so he was not fired. In addition, two other department heads who saw the handwriting on the Hornberger/Schneckenburger political wall—Richard Brooks, head of the Department of Emergency Services, and Eric Sennstrom, head of planning and Land Use Services—also submitted retirement papers after long careers in government service.

Jason Allison, the County Attorney, was dismissed by Schneckenburger on Monday with a letter written on plain, no-letterhead paper and signed by Schneckenburger—who had no legal authority to do so since he has not been formally appointed and confirmed by the County Council, Allison told Cecil Times. Allison said that, as an officer of the court, he still had to take certain steps such as informing judges that he is no longer entering an appearance for the county in pending litigation. “It has been my honor and my privilege to represent the citizens of Cecil County,” said Allison, who also served in the administration of former executive Tari Moore. But he cautioned that some of the steps being taken by the new administration could get them in legal hot water, such as firing several non-department heads.

Meanwhile, Brian Miller, the IT department head, was locked out of the county computer system and informed his services were no longer wanted, sources said. Miller oversaw an upgrade of county IT services including a major overhaul of the county website and online services, including real-time video streaming and text translation features to serve hearing impaired citizens.

David Warnick, a Hornberger political supporter and member of the Rising Sun town board, is expected to be nominated to replace him. (Warnick’s social media profile lists him as an IT company executive who received a bachelor’s degree in computer science after a decade of study to obtain the degree through the University of Maryland’s University College/Global Studies online education program.)

[UPDATE: Also given walking papers was Sally Kilby, the county’s human resources chief.]

Perhaps the most stunning and sudden ouster was the removal of Lisa Saxton, the Director of Finance, with over a decade of senior level work on county fiscal matters and a reputation for no-nonsense, straightforward financial management. She has enjoyed strong support from a majority of the County Council and won praise from independent fiscal advisers to the County Council for implementing financial transparency measures.

Saxton did not resign or retire and her ouster will no doubt be greeted with dismay by a majority of the County Council. The removal is not subject to an OK by the Council, but anyone that Hornberger/Schneckenburger try to replace her with is subject to a Council vote, and a refusal to OK another appointee could put the county in fiscal limbo as the new executive has to come up with a new budget to submit to the Council by 4/1/2020.

The Hornberger/Schneckenburger purge extended into the ranks of “classified” employees, whose positions are considered under the county Charter and personnel policies to be merit, non-political employees who can only be removed for serious “cause.”

Angela Vaca, an administrative assistant/secretary in the administrator’s office, was fired, sources said, and Jen Lyall, the public information officer, was also terminated—although she is currently on family and medical leave, a status that is protected under federal law. Even if that status is honored, there could be costly legal ramifications for the county for a termination effective upon the end of the leave especially for a non-department head.

Carrying out the staff purge within minutes of Hornberger’s inauguration indicated a political and substantive tone-deafness by the Hornberger/Schneckenburger team: nothing like stepping on your own story. There was nothing earth-shaking in Hornberger’s brief speech at the truncated swearing in ceremony but the outside-the-room machinations of staff ousters overtook the message of the day.

The swearing-in ceremony this year was a much scaled-down affair with limited attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic, held in the Elk Room of the County Administration Building in Elkton, and live-streamed on the county website. In the past, such ceremonies were large events, with school choirs and chamber music groups, color guard marches, and a post-event reception with finger food and coffee but on Monday the event included only direct participants, some family members, and two state Senators: Steve Hershey (R-36) and Jason Gallion (R-35).

Hornberger, who posed with her husband, Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-35) and Schneckenburger for maskless photos before the ceremony, noted in her brief remarks that women won the right to vote 100 years ago, in an effort that was “led by Republican women” and “I stand here today” as “an example of 100 years of change.” The county’s first County Executive, Tari Moore, was a woman.

She said her administration would be “putting people not politics first” and will lead with “bold ideas.” She also pledged, as she did during her campaign, to “explore every area of our taxes.” In her campaign she promised to “rollback” a past tax increase but did not say how, or what spending programs she would cut, to balance the budget as required by the county Charter. She did say that support for “public safety and education will be on the front burner” of her program priorities.

“Together we will do it,” she said. “Let’s break down the wall that separates government from the people,” she said, and urged county residents to join her and “dream big together.”

[Also at the ceremonies, two incumbent Council members were sworn in for a second term: Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) and Jackie Gregory (R-5). Meffley was unopposed in both the primary and general election while Gregory won over challenger Don Harmer in the GOP primary and was unopposed in the general election]

Hornberger and Schneckenburger are scheduled to appear before a County Council worksession Tuesday afternoon. On the agenda is an item proposing confirmation of an unnamed appointee. The evening legislative session of the Council agenda lists a plural, ‘appointees’ as an item of new business.

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