Cecil County Council Tiptoes, Mostly, on Questions to Hornberger Picks to Replace Ethics Panel; Last-Minute Party Switch, Score-Settling

February 11, 2021

The Cecil County Council interviewed the five nominees from County Executive Danielle Hornberger to take over the county’s Ethics Commission at a Tuesday (2/9/2021) worksession, with members posing questions that mostly tiptoed around some of the key questions surrounding Hornberger’s decisions—and actions that could be a template for future wholesale removal of other county board memberships.

The biggest unanswered question in the room was whether Andrew Goins, an associate pastor at Pleasant View Baptist Church, could set aside his church’s strong anti-LGBTQ and anti-gay marriage views to decide cases that might involve LGBTQ community members fairly and without bias. And there was also an unanswered question about how another nominee, a supposed Democrat, would consider potentially partisan matters.

Apparently unknown to most Council members at the time, one nominee—Heather O’Rourke—only registered as a Democrat days before she was picked by Hornberger for the ethics panel. During her discussion with the Council, she repeatedly emphasized that her status as a Democrat would give her ‘independence’ and said she was experienced in standing up to people of other political views. County law requires that all members of the five-member ethics panel must be registered county voters and the panel may have “no more than three” members of the same political party. Three of Hornberger’s nominees are Republicans.

According to county Board of Elections records, O’Rourke only registered as a Democrat on 1/12/2021—just two days before Hornberger fired the entire five-member ethics panel on 1/14/2021. Hornberger submitted her list of replacements, including O’Rourke, the following day, on 1/15/2021.

But in her testimony to the County Council this week, O’Rourke portrayed herself as a committed Democrat who would stand up against partisans of another political party. “I will represent the adverse opinion” as a Democrat, she said. And as a Democrat, “I will be outnumbered,” she said.

Asked by Councilor George Patchell(R-4) how she would be unbiased in ethics decisions “despite political pressure,” O’Rourke replied, “I’m not easily persuaded to go in a different direction.”

O’Rourke is nominated to replace Robert Boonstoppel, who was the ethics panel chairman, 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.

O’Rourke told the Council she obtained a degree in social work while working at North Bay and said that as a social worker she was trained in ethics matters. Boonstoppel was widely regarded as the most valuable member of the former 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.

Hornberger’s county administrator, Dan Schneckenburger, told the Council on Tuesday that it was preferable that there be no lawyers on the ethics panel and said the county’s “Charter calls for ordinary people” to serve on the ethics panel. There is no such language in the Charter. The ousted ethics panel had two lawyers while Hornberger’s proposed panel has none to discuss the legally complicated requirements of ethics laws and procedures.

County law also requires staggered terms for the ethics panel, so that experienced panel members are on hand to show the ropes to newcomers. But Hornberger plans to install all newcomers—an issue that concerned many members of the County Council. Schneckenburger said each new member would have a staggered end-date on their service, despite the fact that they would all begin as newcomers.

Schneckenburger tried to cut off questioning by Councilor Al Miller (R-3), who inquired if O’Rourke was concerned about joining a panel on which all members were “new” and without previous experience on the commission. Schneckenburger tried to block the question, saying it “doesn’t correspond to anything” on a nominee’s qualifications. But Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) said it was an appropriate question and allowed it to proceed. (Miller defeated Schneckenburger’s bid for re-election to the County Council about two years ago.)

Meanwhile, a controversial nominee, Andrew Goins, associate pastor of Pleasant View Baptist Church who was nominated for a term ending 8/7/2022, doubled down on his previous appearance before the Council and said he had no second thoughts on his previous politically-tinged criticisms of the Council. [ SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2021/02/cecil-county-council-makes-strategic-retreat-on-ethics-panel-fight-with-county-exec-hornberger-revives-nominations-but-delays-decisions-nominee-goins-stirs-political-pot/

Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2) gingerly asked him on Tuesday if he had any clarifications to offer to his previous testimony to the Council and whether his views might have been “taken out of context” on “social media.”

Goins repeatedly questioned what Coutz meant by social media and eventually said he stood by his previous comments to the Council, in which he claimed he was a victim of “cancel culture” by political opponents and was a victim of religious “discrimination.”

But he was not asked directly about his, and his politically-involved church’s, views on LGBTQ and women’s rights issues and whether he could put those tenets aside while deciding cases on the county ethics panel. Those questions have been raised throughout the county, and the state, on social media. His church website denounces homosexuality, gay marriage and women’s rights, saying a woman should “graciously submit herself” to a husband’s will.

In addition, a video of a sermon by Goins, posted on YouTube and a webpage of a youth ministry he heads, shows him taking a hardline position against divorce, saying he would refuse to provide “pastoral counseling” to any couple that would even consider the possibility of divorce.

The County Council is scheduled to consider the ethics panel nominations at its Tuesday 2/16/2021 legislative meeting.

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