Cecil Co Exec Hornberger Fires Ethics Panel, Replaces Lawyers w/ Pal, Parler Fan, Unknowns; Council to Vote Yes or No

January 17, 2021

Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger fired the five-member county Ethics Commission on Thursday (1/14/2021) via email, despite the fact that all of them had months or years left on their terms in office under appointments previously approved by the County Council. The commission has always had staggered terms of office, so that the important panel has a reservoir of expertise to guide new members as they join the commission.

But Hornberger’s move would sweep away that expertise all at once and instead install a group of newcomers hand-picked by her, unlike previous members who were appointed under different county administrations. She removed two lawyers, who served without pay on the volunteer panel, and would replace them with people with no experience interpreting the complex state and county ethics laws and procedures.

Several legal sources contacted by CECIL TIMES said Hornberger had the legal right to fire everyone on the ethics panel, although her action could be considered as an evidentiary matter in any future case against her on ethics or other legal charges.

In addition, the new County Attorney appointed by Hornberger, Lawrence Scott, has no legal experience in such matters and has never represented a client in any civil or criminal case in Maryland courts, according to the state court system database. (However, Scott was the subject of ethics inquiries in Anne Arundel County that also led to state ethics legislation that passed the House but died in the state Senate.) [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2020/12/hornberger-hires-annapolis-political-consultants-for-key-cecil-county-jobs-long-on-state-gop-ties-short-on-local-government-legal-experience/ ]

In contrast, the former county attorney, Jason Allison, who was fired by Hornberger on her first day in office, served as legal counsel to the ethics panel and represented the county and the commission in court when litigation resulted over decisions by the panel. Moreover, having in-house legal expertise on the commission—especially chairman Robert Boonstoppel, a former military and federal law ethics attorney with decades of expertise on such matters—helped prevent ill-advised actions that might have otherwise resulted in costly courtroom battles.

“Having him on the commission saved the county at least $300 an hour if we had to hire someone of his expertise,” said an attorney with knowledge of Boonstoppel’s credentials and even-handed legal demeanor.

The County Council is scheduled to take up the Hornberger nominees at a Tuesday (1/19/2021) worksession and legislative meeting, with a vote slated for 2/2/2021.

But Hornberger seems so sure of her control of the Council that, on the county website, the names of her nominees were listed over the weekend as official members of the Ethics Commission—even though the Council has not met to discuss, introduce the nominations legislatively, or vote on the individual nominees. Several Council members told CECIL TIMES they only received notification of the ethics panel nominees late Friday afternoon, after Hornberger had already fired all current members.

Councilor Al Miller (R-3) said he was surprised and dismayed at the wholesale firings of the panel, without advance consultation with the Council. “What is this, pre-school,” he said. Miller was the only Council member to vote against any previous Hornberger appointee, casting the lone ‘no’ vote against Scott for county attorney.

Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) has so far been supportive of Hornberger’s administration and forcefully pressured Council members to approve her new department heads with less than two hours to meet them, review their resumes and vote on their confirmation on her second day in office. But he told CECIL TIMES on Sunday that he spoke to her Friday afternoon and voiced concerns about at least one of her decisions.

But he claimed, contrary to county law, “We can’t stop her,” Meffley said. In fact, the County Council has sole authority over confirmation, or refusal to confirm, executive appointments to county boards or commissions.

“She said she wanted to get rid of anyone put in there by Alan McCarthy” [the former Republican County Executive she defeated in the GOP primary in June], Meffley said. But that assertion is false, since many of the panel members’ appointments date back to former GOP county executive Tari Moore or even to the old County Commissioners form of government. And all current appointees were approved or re-appointed by a Republican-controlled County Council.

Meffley said he was upset that Hornberger fired the most recent appointee—Janice Colvin—since the Council had held off on confirming her until a few months ago–after the ethics panel had rendered its decision on Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) who was found to have violated county ethics laws. (Gregory ran for re-election in 2020 on a joint ticket and campaign with Hornberger.) [SEE one of multiple previous CECIL TIMES report on Gregory’s ethics issues here: http://ceciltimes.com/2020/05/cecil-county-councilor-jackie-gregory-violated-county-ethics-code-commission-finds-stops-teaching-in-county-schools-under-panel-order/ ]

Colvin is hardly the most accomplished member of the past ethics panel, but at least she is not clearly aligned with any previous or current local political faction. She is an assistant professor of communications at Wilmington University and worked for 18 years as an editor of the weekly newspaper in Queen Anne’s County, as well as holding various public relations positions.

County ethics laws require that no more than three members of the commission can be members of the same political party, so the proposed members’ political profile set forth by Hornberger is two Democrats and three Republicans. But the two persons proposed as Democrats are unknown in Democratic political circles, according to highly knowledgeable party members, and one of them actually donated to a GOP county executive candidate, according to state campaign finance records.

Hornberger’s nominees, and those they would replace, are:

–Heather O’Rourke, Democrat, to replace Boonstoppel for a term expiring 7/18/2024—O’Rourke is a pal of Hornberger, as both worked at the North Bay camp in North East. Cecil County taxpayers pay over $300,000 a year to provide “outdoor education” to county middle school students for a weeklong camping trip at North Bay.

In contrast, Boonstoppel is widely regarded as the most valuable member of the ethics panel, with decades of experience as a lawyer and ethics expert. He served in the Army as a senior lawyer and Colonel, supervising large staffs of attorneys handling military legal and ethics issues and also worked as a civilian lawyer advising federal and military agencies on ethics legal issues.

Boonstoppel told CECIL TIMES he was particularly concerned that the planned changes to the commission would wipe out any continuity of experience with complex legal issues. “It’s going to be a big learning curve” for new members, he said.

–Janet Pope, Democrat, to replace Wyatt Wallace, for a term expiring 10/3/2021. She is identified as a Democrat by Hornberger but state campaign finance records show Janet Pope donated to the 2016 political campaign of Republican Joe Carabetta when he ran for county executive in the GOP primary. Carabetta was an outspoken supporter of Hornberger in the 2020 campaign. Pope works as an employment recruiter.

Wallace is a longtime volunteer in county government circles, serving on the county Planning Commission as well as the ethics panel. He is a former president of the county’s Democrat Club. He told CECIL TIMES he was disappointed that the new executive chose to conduct “a purge” of the ethics panel, when he and other members always considered it a non-partisan commission. He, too, voiced concern that the wholesale removal of anyone with experience from the panel would mean “a lack of continuity” as new members “learn the ropes.”

–Andrew Goins, Republican, associate pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church, replacing William DeFreitas.for a term ending 8/7/2022. Goins has three years’ experience at the church, which is well known in the county for its fiery conservative stance and past forums at which GOP candidates vied for support.

DeFreitas was the publisher of The Cecil Guardian, a weekly newspaper and website that covered local government and politics for several years before it ceased publication

–Charles Kelso, a Republican, to replace Janice Colvin for a term ending 3/3/2024. Kelso is a Port Deposit area farm owner and a retired state Department of Natural Resources officer. His social media posts reflect a mix of biblical quotations and conservative political views, including a recent admonition to friends to join the ultra-conservative Parler online forum. Parler was recently disabled on internet servers and cloud services due to ties to groups supporting extremism, especially in the aftermath of the January 6 violence at the US Capitol.

–Joseph Graf, a Republican, who on his social media profile lists employment by the Kent County school system, to replace Bradley Moore, a lawyer, for a term expiring on 12/19/2023.

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