Hornberger Insults Cecil County Councilors Who Question Her Demands; Strongarm Tactics by Appointees Trigger Independence Moves by Council

October 1, 2021


Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger has lobbed an insult-laden video attack on the County Council for daring to disagree with her on an Elkton town land annexation case, claiming in a fact-free screed that Councilors were “bought and paid for” by developers—despite the fact that most of the Councilors had minimal campaign donations of any kind while she accepted multiple large donations from real estate interests.

In addition, Hornberger’s appointed county attorney—Lawrence Scott, an Annapolis political consultant and lobbyist who never appeared in any state courtroom or even entered written legal representation on behalf of a client, according to the state Courts database—has tried to bully the Council on several issues, including solar panel farm legislation and the annexation case.

Scott even made up his own facts recently to rail against and try to block cameras on school buses to catch car drivers who illegally pass a bus. The cameras are provided at no charge by a private firm that will collect fines and split the revenues with the county schools. Scott claimed the Sheriff’s Office would have to hire several new deputies to review the videos. But the Council called Major George Stanko from the audience and he said no new staff would be needed since existing school resource officers would review video of violations submitted by the contractor to authorize issuance of a citation. The Council supported the program and decided there was no need for any legislative action.

Moreover, this week Hornberger put two of her closest political allies and donors on a panel that will review the county’s Comprehensive Plan that determines how and where development and land preservation will be located in the county. She announced her choices in a press release without any prior consultation with the Council.

In a more than four-minute video she posted 9/26/2021 on her political campaign social media page—which has long blocked access to and comments from people she deems unfriendly to her political ambitions—Hornberger denounced a recent Council vote to endorse a Town of Elkton plan to annex a nearly 60-acre site, close to I-95, for commercial use, saying the action was suspect and corrupt.

She called the long-established legal process for town annexations of land from open county jurisdiction a “loophole“and claimed that any Councilor who supported the annexation was suspect. (The legislation passed on a 4-1 vote, with only her close political ally, Jackie Gregory (R-5), voting no.)

“This type of good ole boy shenanigans is exactly the kind of stuff I was elected to stop,” she declared. “We need elected officials that are not bought and paid for by the developers and willing to cut deals in smoke-filled back rooms because of relationships.”

Hornberger’s well-financed, nearly six-figure 2020 campaign for county executive relied heavily on donations from developers and real estate interests, including big bucks real estate donors from outside the county who have also backed her husband, Del. Kevin Hornberger’s (R-35A) political campaigns. She also accepted donations from at least one person that exceeded state donation limits. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2020/05/mrs-hornberger-county-exec-campaign-hits-husbands-political-pals-for-biggest-local-donors-bucks-benefit-from-kevin-hornberger-political-pressure-in-state-fight/ ]

In contrast, Council members she attacked were relative political donation paupers. Councilor George Patchell (R-4) filed affidavits in his last campaign, swearing to the state Board of Elections that he spent and fundraised less than $1,000 on his re-election campaign.

Council President Bob Meffley (R-1), who was unopposed in both the GOP primary and general election in 2020, also filed affidavits of spending and fundraising under $1,000. Councilor Bill Coutz (R-2), who is up for re-election in 2022, also filed affidavits in the past two years for under $1,000 in donations or campaign spending.

Councilor Al Miller (R-3), who is up for re-election in 2022, reported a campaign fund balance of $1,456 in his most recent elections board finance report in January.

Well after her costly election campaign in 2020, Hornberger is still sitting on a remaining campaign fund balance of $18,456, according to her 1/2021 report to the state Board of Elections.

Hornberger’s attack on the Council drew spirited responses at a Council worksession on Tuesday 9/28/2021. Miller said, and later posted on social media, that Hornberger’s video screed was unfounded by the facts of the contested land use/annexation issue and was an unwarranted personal attack: “Al Miller does not make any ‘smoke-filled backroom deals.’. I stand on my reputation, as I have pledged my lifetime commitment to this county,” he said.

Meffley sought to turn around Hornberger’s “good ole boys” criticism, saying that he was “proud” to be associated with “good old boys” as he defined them: average citizens, such as those he talked to at a recent Hack’s Point event in Earleville. He said he would always “listen to” the concerns and comments of average citizens.

Meanwhile, several recent issues before the Council highlighted the strongarm tactics of Scott, the county attorney and Annapolis political consultant who has become the consigliere of the Hornberger administration. Scott dominates discussions at Council worksessions that under past practice would be led by the county administrator. But Dan Schneckenburger, the current county administrator who has substantive experience on local issues as a former one-term Cecil County Council member, has been reduced to sitting silently or delegated to read written statements from the County Executive.

Scott tried to strongarm solar panel and “solar farm” legislation through the Council by claiming that a county Planning Commission decision to table an administration-drafted plan for further study amounted to “inaction” that should mandate that the Council take an immediate vote on the Hornberger legislation.

But Council members rejected Scott’s demands and listened at a worksession to two Planning Commission members, who were rejected for re-appointment to that panel by Hornberger, on the reasons for the Commission’s decision to seek more time to review the issue—especially since the planning panel had only been given the proposal a day before the meeting.

The Hornberger proposal ignored multiple concerns raised by Miller, who had been studying the solar issue for more than six months and consulted with farm leaders and other counties on ways to protect prime agricultural soils from potential impacts from large-scale solar panel operations. But the Planning Commission re-considered the legislation this week and agreed with several of Miller’s proposals and forwarded the revisions to the Council.

After rejecting Scott’s interference, the Council collegially reviewed and agreed this week on nine amendments to the Hornberger plan during a worksession, at which Scott was not present, and incorporated revisions made by the Planning Commission. In the next two weeks, the Council is expected to formally introduce the revised plan based on Miller’s proposed protections for prime agricultural soils, allowing smaller 30-acre farms to participate, instead of 50 or more acres as originally proposed, and screening from neighboring properties

While Scott was trying to rush action on the solar issue, he also tried to stall Council action on legislation to support a town of Elkton annexation plan for about 60 acres on Belle Hill Rd and Route 279, close to an I-95 interchange, that was zoned for high density residential development that could bring a major influx of hundreds of students to county schools. But the property owners decided that its location was more suited to commercial rather than residential usage and began exploring annexation to Elkton nearly three years ago. Town water and sewer services would be sought to serve the property.

Long-established law provides that a town may annex property unilaterally but if there is a zoning change from a previous county zoning category, that change cannot take effect for five years, unless the county agrees sooner.

Cameron Brown, whose law firm represents the Ayers family that owns the land, told CECIL TIMES that the county zoning would have allowed up to 14 units per acre and could have involved a mix of single-family homes, townhouses and apartments.

Brown said there was nothing “secret” about the annexation proposal and it had been discussed for the past three years, with an initial petition to the town filed in October, 2020, but it was put on hold while discussions with the county were held. :”Annexations don’t happen with a snap of the fingers,” he said. “This project has been the subject of numerous public hearings at both the Town and County levels, with all requisite notices having been published.”

The town approved the annexation in August, with town officials saying they would work to support a mix of commercial and possible hotel or recreational uses on the site. Then the annexation issue was forwarded again to the county.

At an 8/21/2021 Council worksession, Scott tried to stall the plan, saying the county should just wait for a few years before allowing the rezoning to proceed. He also demanded that no action be taken by the Council until the State Highway Administration weighed in on whether there could be access to Route 279 without routing traffic to Belle Hill Road. “We’ll never give up Belle Hill,” he declared.

Brown said of Scott’s proposals: “It’s a stall tactic and it’s pretty transparent.” He noted that the state would have to do detailed traffic impact studies and could not render advance decisions on road access before there is a site plan, concept proposal or even decisions on what type of development will be built on the site.

Despite the Hornberger administration’s recent legislative setbacks, there’s always partisan politics to fall back on.

This week, Hornberger announced appointees to a Comprehensive Plan Review panel, which will study the county’s planning and zoning maps and suggest possible revisions. Notable among her choices is Vincent Sammons, the chairman of the County Republican Central Committee for the past several years who recently gave up that seat, at least temporarily, to claim a spot on the county’s Redistricting Commission that will redraw Council district lines based on the 2020 census. Sammons has been an ardent political supporter of Hornberger, a donor to her campaign, and operator of multiple social media sites attacking other local officials with the same language used in Hornberger’s new video.

Also on Hornberger’s list is Clay Stubbs, recently appointed to the Republican Central Committee with Sammons’ support. His family owns a farm and event venue that hosted, without charge to her campaign, Hornberger’s first election fundraiser and announcement of her run for County Executive.

County Council members were not consulted in advance on appointments to the panel, but several said they were pleased for the most part that the list included farm representatives such as Chris Brown, head of the local Soil Conservation District; Perry Willis, head of school construction and building operations for county schools; Sandra Edwards, former Chesapeake City town manager and currently a senior staffer at the county’s economic development office; Charles Hicks, a longtime Elkton town board member; and several members of the real estate and development community.

Meffley said the Council may seek to appoint one of its own members to the panel. The Council will review any recommendations made by the panel and can accept, modify or reject the proposals.

The full membership of the panel is:
• Tanya Beresh
• Chris Brown
• Jennifer Callaghan
• Amy DiPietro
• Sandra Edwards
• Charles Hicks
• Vincent Sammons
• Clay Stubbs
• Perry Willis

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