Cecil County Council Makes Strategic Retreat on Ethics Panel Fight with County Exec, But Delays Decisions; Nominee Goins Stirs Political Pot

February 4, 2021

The Cecil County Council made a strategic retreat Tuesday evening (2/2/2021), voting to rescind its previous refusal to consider five nominations by new County Executive Danielle Hornberger to the county’s Ethics Commission after she summarily fired all five sitting members. Faced with a threat that she would install her picks unilaterally if the Council refused to act on the nominations, the Council revived the nominations but pledged to carefully “vet” the nominees before voting on them in two weeks.

It was a day-long dance of procedural points between the Council and county administrator Dan Schneckenburger, who refused to re-submit the nominees’ names as requested by the council, since they viewed the previous submission as deeply flawed procedurally. Instead, he claimed that the Council’s refusal to act two weeks ago set a ticking 30-day clock and Hornberger could, and would, seat her choices with or without Council approval.

During hours of discussions on the nomination process at an afternoon worksession and an evening legislative session, Council members made clear that their concerns were with the process of Hornberger’s unilateral actions and their implications for ignoring the powers of the Council under the county Charter, and not a verdict on the qualifications of the individual people she had nominated.

Council members were particularly incensed that Hornberger’s administration fired all five members of the existing commission and then listed the names of her nominees on the county website as holding seats on the panel—even before their names had been introduced to the Council and the lawmakers given the chance to review and vote on the candidates, as provided by the Charter. As a result of her actions, the Council voted 4-1 two weeks ago to refuse to consider the nominations. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2021/01/cecil-county-council-rejects-hornberger-plan-to-overthrow-ethics-commission-stands-up-for-council-powers-in-first-confrontation-with-new-exec/ ]

Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2) told CECIL TIMES that he was reluctant to “rescind” the motion he made two weeks ago to refuse to consider the nominations due to the infringement on Council powers. But he decided to do so Tuesday night so as to allow the Council to ultimately have its say in the matters. “Without proper process, we lose the ability to govern,” he said, and it “becomes the wild, wild West.”

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5) abstained from the Tuesday vote, saying she wanted more time to consult with lawyers. Gregory, who voted against the Council action two weeks ago, was found in violation of the county ethics code last year by a-3-0 vote of the ethics panel. Hornberger fired those three members along with two others who did not participate in deciding the case against Gregory, who ran for re-election in a joint political campaign with Hornberger.

Members of the ethics panel serve four-year terms and under the Charter the appointments are ‘staggered,’ so that there are experienced members who continue to serve so as to show the ropes to newcomers on the complicated legal and procedural matters that govern the ethics panel’s operations. Most of the fired members had years left to serve on their current terms and two members were experienced lawyers. There are no lawyers on Hornberger’s list.

The ethics panel is supposed to be a non-political body but Hornberger supporters sought to turn the procedural tussle with the Council into a partisan fight during public comments Tuesday evening, as three members of the county’s Republican Central Committee and multiple ardent advocates of Hornberger’s political campaign supported her actions and nominees.

And one nominee–Andrew Goins, associate pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church—spoke out on the Zoom call of the meeting to claim he was a victim of “cancel culture” and suggested there was “discrimination” against him because of his faith. Goins was nominated for a term on the panel that would last until 8/7/2022.

Goins has three years’ experience at the church, which is well known in the county for its fiery conservative stances and past forums at which GOP candidates vied for support. In addressing the Council, Goins made a point of his church’s political clout, saying that his “church votes over 1,000 people in our county.”

Goins also accused the Council of “folly and shame,” and quoted a parable to make his point, arguing that the Council should have interviewed him before its procedural vote. (In fact, none of the nominees was interviewed before the procedural vote two weeks ago, and Councilors repeatedly stated then and on Tuesday that their actions were a matter of Council and Executive powers under the Charter and not a verdict on any individual nominee.)

Nevertheless, Goins said the Council’s action was “a decision to engage in “cancel culture” against him (using a term popular among GOP conservatives to dismiss their opponents) and suggested that he was a victim of “discrimination” on the basis of his faith.

While no one on the Council made any comments on any nominee’s credentials to serve or their views, during the two weeks before members vote on the nominees on 2/16/2021, they may wish to consider the professed views of Goins and his church on issues involving the LGBT community and women’s rights– and whether they could influence his handling of cases that may come before the ethics panel, possibly involving members of the LGBT community.

His church’s website has a lengthy statement of its guiding principles, including opposition to “all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.” The website also defines marriage as “the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.” (Marriage equality for members of the LGBT community is the law of the land, under a landmark Supreme Court ruling as well as Maryland law.)

The church also states that “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband…” Under state law, women have equal rights with men in virtually all circumstances.

During the public comments at the Council meeting, three members of the county’s Republican Central Committee—Vincent Sammons, the chairman; Ryan Farmer, the appointed vice chairman; and newly appointed by Sammons member Harold McCannick—all backed Hornberger’s actions and attacked the Council and others. Sammons went into his usual diatribe against the former County Executive, Alan McCarthy, and a business political committee that never donated to McCarthy’s campaigns, according to state Board of Elections records.

McCannick, recently appointed to the GOP panel without a vote by the full committee membership, according to sources, treated the Council and the public to his usual brand of colorful, or off-color, language. He said the Council was full of “bullcrap” and characterized members’ discussions as “blah, blah, blah” and “cat turds buried in the litterbox.”

Many other commenters questioned the process used by Hornberger and her lack of “transparency” in the mass firings of previous members of the ethics panel as well as how her appointments were handled. “The whole way she’s done this is totally wrong,” said Heidi Gualtney. ”and it should not stand.”

Hornberger’s conduct “smacks of cronyism” and caused a “fiasco” that “runs roughshod over the process” of county government, said Janice Stenger.

During the earlier Council worksession, Schneckenburger, the county administrator for Hornberger, complained that the Council agenda had been “changed” less than 24 hours in advance and questioned its legality. Originally, the agenda stated that the Council would reconsider the original nominations resolutions, but a revised agenda put out shortly before the worksession listed new bill numbers for each nomination.

Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) shot back that “The Council has the right to change its agenda if something comes up.” And he pointed out that the substance of the discussion and legislation—nominees to the ethics panel—were the same, regardless of the number attached to a resolution.

“Right now, we’re sitting at a crossroads,” Meffley said. “I really think we’re going down a rabbit hole.”

Eventually, the Council decided to back down from the new bill number resolutions and move forward with the original documents they had refused to consider two weeks ago, so as to retain their power to review and vote on the matters.

“Sometimes no matter where you turn, you get hit with a rock,” Meffley observed.

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