Cecil County Council OKs 4 Hornberger Ethics Panel Picks: Rejects Democrat-Come-Lately, OKs Anti-LGBTQ Rights Pastor Goins; Council Social Media War Erupts as Gregory Attacks Coutz

February 18, 2021


For more than a month, the Cecil County Council has been locked in a procedural power struggle with new County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s administration over her firing of all five members of the county’s Ethics Commission, whose terms still had months or years to run, and replacement with her choices. But even after the Council approved all but one of her nominees late Tuesday (2/16/2021), under pressure to install a functioning panel as required by state law, that still wasn’t good enough for Hornberger’s chief allies.

When one Council member – Bill Coutz (R-2) –sought to explain his votes to constituents and personal friends on his Facebook pages after the meeting, fellow Council member Jackie Gregory (R-5) attacked him in scathing personal and political terms on his pages and even interjected her attacks into comments by friends supporting him, continuing well into the day on Thursday.

There was a lot of score-settling in the entire ethics commission issue, as Gregory was the most outspoken critic of the ousted ethics panel. Three members of the former commission voted to find her in violation of the county ethics code for working and collecting a salary as a substitute teacher for county schools, while voting on budget and other matters involving the schools.

Gregory initially disclosed her own conduct at a Council worksession and defended her status despite ethics law provisions to the contrary. A citizen complaint was filed with the ethics panel weeks after her disclosure. In the debate over the new ethics panel nominees, she claimed that the former commission had been “politically weaponized” against her. (Gregory and Hornberger ran a joint political campaign effort in the 2020 elections.)

And if there was any doubt about the score-settling aspects of the current political fight, consider the broadside by Gregory’s sister, Donna Caudell, during Tuesday evening’s public comments section of the Council meeting. Caudell launched into a personal attack on Councilor Al Miller (R-3), despite the fact that he had not voiced any opinion on the qualifications of the new ethics panel nominees. What was Miller’s conduct that so offended Caudell? He won election to the County Council two years ago, defeating Dan Schneckenburger in the GOP primary. Schneckenburger is now Hornberger’s Director of Administration.

Miller “shouldn’t have been elected,” Caudell said. “He had no experience and the person he defeated” (Schneckenburger) did. Miller has many years of agriculture business experience and serving as the top official of the county Fair Board, as well as leadership roles in multiple community organizations. Schneckenburger served one term on the County Council and was defeated in a bid for County Executive by Alan McCarthy and he also lost a bid for re-election to the Council to Miller.

Schneckenburger has largely been running the executive branch of county government, and multiple mis-steps so far can be traced to his doorstep. What angered the Council on the ethics panel matters from the outset was the placement of the names of Hornberger’s choices on the county website listed as though they were official members of the commission—before their names were submitted to the Council and the Council given a chance to review and vote on the candidates, as required by county law. Schneckenburger defended the action, saying, “We were trying to be pro-active.”

The Council initially refused to consider the nominees due to the mishandling of the process by the Hornberger/Schneckenburger administration but backed down after threats by Schneckenburger to install the ethics panel members unilaterally if the Council did not act within 30 days. He also fired several department heads and other employees in December, before he had been officially approved by the Council as county administrator. Three “classified” employees not subject to unilateral termination are expected to sue the county for wrongful dismissal.

Schneckenburger has also treated some Council members with intense verbal disrespect in private conversations, sources said.

Meanwhile, County Council members did not elaborate on the reasons for their votes at the Tuesday evening meeting, which had dragged on for hours largely due to extended citizen comments on the ethics nominees and the selection process. Councilor Coutz posted on social media a sharply-worded explanation of his vote close to midnight after the late evening session.

“County Executive Danielle Hornberger’s decision to fire the entire County Ethics Board was entirely unethical, was a clear violation of the purpose of an ethics board and will leave our government less accountable. I join many of you who have spoken out against her decision in saying that this is no way to run a government,” Coutz wrote.

He went on to say that he voted for 4 of the nominees—and against one who did not meet qualification requirements—but only because Hornberger/Schneckenburger had created a situation where the county could be in violation of state law if no ethics panel existed.

“The confirmation process was full of secretive behavior by the administration, a total lack of respect for our county charter, and even veiled political threats against council members who questioned the administration’s decisions,” Coutz wrote.

“These are the exact kind of shady, unethical behaviors that citizens have grown tired of in Washington DC and Annapolis, and they have no place in our local government,” he added.

Gregory responded on social media on Thursday morning with a lengthy attack on Coutz, claiming he previously challenged the former ethics panel in private talks with her and then she railed against him on totally unrelated issues, such as enterprise zones and his own candidacy against Hornberger in the GOP primary for county executive.

“Will the real Bill Coutz please stand up?” Gregory wrote. She claimed that in private “conversations” with her, Coutz had told her “the previous ethics commission was corrupt and needed to be replaced.”

Then she attacked Coutz on totally unrelated matters, such as enterprise zones that provide incentives for business development, and issues raised in his unsuccessful campaign for County Executive against Hornberger and several other candidates in the 2020 Republican primary. She also accused Coutz of “defamatory statements” against Hornberger.

Gregory’s broadside was removed several hours later from Coutz’ pages, but CECIL TIMES had already copied her posts as recorded here. But several hours later, Gregory was at it again, making argumentative statements in replies to Coutz’ friends on his personal page that had supported his comments.

Asked about Gregory’s social media tirades, Coutz told CECIL TIMES, “I take it for what it is, and that is not much.”

A key concern of Council members was the fact that Hornberger fired all five members of the ethics panel and would install all new members, despite the fact that county law requires staggered terms, so that newcomers can be assisted by veteran members in handling and understanding the complex legal issues of ethics law. The fired members had been appointed by various administrations, dating to county Commissioners or former executive Tari Moore, so that no one administration appointed all of the members. Under Hornberger’s actions, all members would owe their appointment to her.

During the lengthy Tuesday evening Council session, members cast their votes without extensive comments, voting to approve four ethics panel nominees and rejecting one person, Heather O’Rourke. With the exception of Gregory, Councilors indicated they believed she skirted county law that requires that no more than three members of the five- member panel can be members of the same political party. As CECIL TIMES previously reported exclusively, O’Rourke only registered as a Democrat just two days before Hornberger nominated her for the panel. But under questioning by the Council, she had portrayed herself as a committed Democrat who would stand up against Republicans on the panel to ensure bipartisanship.

The Council approved, without comment, the nomination of Andrew Goins, associate pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church—who was the most controversial nominee due to his church’s outspoken opposition to homosexuality and LGBTQ rights as well as the view that women should “graciously” submit to the will of their husbands. His term on the ethics panel would last until 8/7/2022

No Council member ever questioned him about his religious or LGBTQ views, but in several appearances before the Council he claimed he was a victim of “cancel culture” and religious discrimination. He drew support from multiple speakers at the Tuesday session including some who also claimed he was a bias victim.

Goins also bragged about his church’s political clout in a previous Council session, saying his “church votes over 1,000 people in our county.” Until recently, the church’s social media page included header photos of Hornberger and her husband, Del. Kevin Hornberger (R-35A) and a small truck decorated with pro-Trump signs.

The Council votes came after more than an hour of public comments to the Zoom- hosted meeting.

Raedena Shelton told the Council that they should approve Goins because county leaders should have “accepted the blood of Jesus Christ” and “Where else are you going to go?” She also said, “I follow whatever Danielle wants to do.”

Frances Bowman said, “I encourage the Council not to abdicate their powers” to decide independently on nominees. She said experience with ethics laws was vital for commission members, “not just moral teachings from their church.

J. Vest said it was “complete nonsense” to raise questions of church/state separation for the ethics panel, a concept that he said was “twisted by the liberals.” He said “it’s crazy to me” that “a Bible believing Christian” should have his qualifications questioned since “We’ve got God to answer to.”

Lauren Johnsky said Goins’ church “espouses hatred of the LGBTQ community” and sexist views of women that would make him incapable of rendering unbiased opinions.

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