Cecil County Council Rejects Hornberger Plan to Overthrow Ethics Commission; Stands up for Council Powers in First Confrontation with New Exec

January 21, 2021

The Cecil County Council, in the first open revolt of its kind since the 2012 creation of Charter government, stood up for its powers Tuesday (1/19/2021) and rejected what one Councilor called an attempt by County Executive Danielle Hornberger to “strongarm” the Council to approve her unilateral choices for the Ethics Commission– after she fired all five current members, who still had months or years left on their terms.

Moments after the resolutions were introduced at the Council’s evening legislative session, Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2) offered a motion to reject all five appointments and his motion was seconded by Council President Bob Meffley (R-1.) After heated discussion, the Council voted 4-1 to reject the introduction of the resolutions—effectively killing the appointments.

Only Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), a strong political ally of Hornberger and who was found to be in violation of county ethics laws last year by the Commission, supported Hornberger’s move to replace three members who acted against Gregory, along with two members who played no role in that decision.

The vote came after a stormy afternoon worksession of the Council, at which it seemed clear that there was not majority support for the nominees, and after public comments at the evening meeting by eight citizens, who all opposed Hornberger’s actions. Only one person—Andrew Goins, assistant pastor at the politically-vocal Pleasant View Baptist Church—spoke to defend his own nomination for the ethics panel, saying he was not a “puppet” of Hornberger, who attends the church.

Faced with clear Council opposition to Hornberger’s actions, Dan Schneckenburger, her new Director of Administration for the county, warned Council members that the administration might just keep submitting the same list of nominees. He pointed out that state law required the county to have an Ethics Commission in place, suggesting that the Council would be responsible for a legal violation. “We believe a fresh start on the Ethics Commission is needed,” he said, and declared that the executive had the authority to fire the existing commission members.

But Coutz shot back, saying that if there was a “crisis,” it was totally the doing of Hornberger, not the Council. He said he would not be “strong-armed” by the county executive to rubber stamp her favored candidates.

Hornberger seemed 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 had not yet met to discuss, introduce the nominations legislatively, or vote on the individual nominees. Several Council members told CECIL TIMES they only received notification of her ethics panel nominees late Friday afternoon, after Hornberger had already fired all current members via email on Thursday (1/14/2021.)

The website posting infuriated most Councilors, who indicated they viewed that step as a usurpation of Council authority to vote on nominations, suggesting that Hornberger alone had installed her nominees on the panel.

Hornberger “jumped the gun,” said Councilor Al Miller (R-3), adding that he would “remind the county executive that under the Cecil County Charter,” these appointments are not final until they are approved by the Council.” He said it was “premature” and ”presumptuous” to list her nominees on the website as though they were already sitting as the official panel. “The County Council does have a vote.”

“We were just trying to be pro-active,” said Schneckenburger, who is a former one-term County Council member who was defeated for re-election and also lost a campaign for county executive in 2016. Schneckenburger spoke on behalf of the Hornberger administration at both afternoon and evening sessions, although Danielle Hornberger spoke briefly via the Zoom online meeting app for the evening session before turning back control to Schneckenburger.

All five members of the ethics panel that Hornberger fired had months or years left on their existing four-year terms, which under county law are ‘staggered’ so that new members join the panel while more experienced members are still serving so they can show newcomers the ropes of the complicated legal and procedural matters that the ethics panel must navigate. All of those members had their appointments approved by a Republican-controlled County Council, including one member approved just a few months ago by the current Council. Most members had originally been appointed by previous executive Tari Moore.

Hornberger’s unilateral firing of the ethics panel members included the ouster of two lawyers, who provided their legal expertise as unpaid volunteers. None of her proposed members are lawyers. By law, the members choose their own chairman, so that the inexperienced newcomers would choose their own chairman from among the other newcomers. It was unclear at the Council meetings if she had secretly hand-picked a chairperson and obtained promises of support from her other appointees.

The official county legal advisor to the ethics panel is the County Attorney, with Hornberger’s recent pick of Lawrence Scott installing an Annapolis political consultant and lobbyist who has never entered a courtroom or even entered a written “appearance” in a civil or criminal case in Maryland courts, according to the state courts database. On ethics matters, his only experience has been as a subject of possible ethics law violation inquiries in Anne Arundel County. [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/ ]

During the County Council meetings on the ethics panel, Gregory said there should be consultation with a lawyer to advise the Council on relevant ethics law matters. But Scott was not on the Zoom call for either the worksession or evening legislative session. In contrast, the former county attorney fired by Hornberger, Jason Allison, routinely attended Council worksessions and legislative meetings to answer any questions the lawmakers had.

Meffley referenced Hornberger’s previous gambit of firing many experienced department heads and demanding a quick Council confirmation vote on their successors within hours of her actions, in registering his opposition to her latest moves on the ethics panel. “We’ve been here before, on the directors,” he said.

During citizen comments at the evening meeting, there was strong opposition to the wholesale firings of the entire ethics panel.

“I’m appalled,” said David Neff, of Elkton. He said it was improper that Hornberger would install “puppets” on the ethics panel and urged the Council to “vote to uphold the Charter.”

Heidi Gualtney said Hornberger was “not an emperor” or “a princess” and should not have the power to “get five people to kowtow to her and do things the way she wants.”

Tim Rothermal said Hornberger was “not the queen of Cecil County; she is a public servant.”

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

–Heather O’Rourke, Democrat, to replace Robert 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, the chairman of the commission, 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.)

[SEE previous CECIL TIMES exclusive report on Hornberger’s actions and other nominees for the ethics panel here:
http://ceciltimes.com/2021/01/cecil-co-exec-hornberger-fires-ethics-panel-replaces-lawyers-w-pal-parler-fan-unknowns-council-to-vote-on-names/ ]

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