Cecil County Council Ponders Charter Changes; Moves to Clarify, Re-Balance Powers in Local Government

February 13, 2022


The Cecil County Council, after a year of often being cut out of local government decision-making by the County Executive, is considering a series of amendments to the county Charter that would clarify the Council’s role and spell out procedures for filling vacancies, membership on the Ethics Commission and decisions on major expenditures, including purchase/leasing/sale of real estate.

If the Council approves Charter amendment proposals, they would have to be submitted to county voters for approval, or rejection, on the November general election ballot.

Some of the proposals were direct responses to recent events, including several Councilors’ concerns that they were not being given full or transparent accountings of county budget spending and possible real estate purchases.

In a recent closed-door session and an open worksession on Tuesday 2/8/2022, the Council considered eight proposals and reached preliminary agreement on four, with another subject to further discussions, while three were dropped. The two most significant provisions dealt with the fiscal powers of the Council versus the executive, with one measure endorsed by the Council and another turned down on a 3-2 vote. The Council is scheduled to discuss the Charter issues again at its next worksession on 2/15/2022.

The Charter form of government approved by county voters in 2010 established strong powers for the County Executive, with the County Council’s fiscal powers in particular more limited. Currently the Council may only cut spending proposed by the Executive’s budget but may not increase or re-allocate funds from one department to another (with limited exceptions for some schools programs.) One proposed Charter revision called for allowing the Council to restore funds that had originally been sought by a department or agency but cut by the Executive; however, any increase would have to be offset by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget.

Councilors Bill Coutz (R-2) and Bob Meffley (R-1) strongly supported the plan. Coutz said there was a need “to create some balance” because now the Executive has “100 percent of the fiscal power… they create it (the budget) and manage it.”

Councilor Jackie Gregory (R-5), Hornberger’s strongest supporter on the Council, opposed the change, saying the proposal would “turn it upside down” in budget matters and the part-time Council members did not have the day-to-day responsibility for management of local government departments. “What’s the point of having a County Executive,” she said, if the executive cannot manage her own budget. Newly appointed Councilor Donna Culberson (R-4) agreed with Gregory, as she usually does.

A surprise foe of the proposal was Councilor Al Miller (R-3), a frequent critic of Hornberger administration practices. “I think this is a nightmare,” said Miller. “You think you’ve got problems with backyard chickens? Wow!” (The Council recently passed legislation to allow certain residential properties to house backyard chickens after months of heated debate and a slew of amendments.)

After the meeting, Miller told CECIL TIMES that he thought the proposal would undercut Charter government and return the county to the days of County Commissioners squabbing over everything and “nothing getting done.”

“I think that Charter has worked very well,” Miller said. “You have to hold somebody accountable for the budget,” he said, and “while we may not be flourishing right now” under the Hornberger administration, it is still better than “tearing down Charter.”

But there was broad agreement on another significant amendment, to create a Board of Estimates to review and approve major expenditures. Council Manager James Massey explained how such boards operate in many other counties, to give Council and the public a voice in major purchases or leases and assuring transparency in government spending. Currently, Cecil County Council members “sometimes feel left out” of major fiscal decisions, Massey said.

The issue of accountability and transparency for spending by the County Executive has come to the forefront recently, with belated disclosure that Hornberger spent federal COVID relief funds to remodel the executive’s offices, but her administration still has not specified details and costs of the project despite questions by Council members.

In addition, the executive recently dispatched aides to inspect a building in downtown Elkton for possible purchase by the county for new offices for the State’s Attorney, to move the staff out of the county Courthouse. Such a purchase could force relocation of local non-profit groups from the property and that trigged a public outcry from supporters of the two charities. After a social media uproar, Hornberger declared that the county was “no longer” interested in the property. (But a few days later, tenants said, representatives of an architectural firm that specializes in developing and remodeling government buildings showed up at the site to inspect it.)

The proposed Board of Estimates would consist of the County Executive, the Council President, another Council member, a citizen named by the County Executive and one citizen named by the Council, the county purchasing manager, the county Director of Administration, and the county Finance Director. The administration would hold a majority of seats on the board. (But as an official county Board, the proceedings would apparently be subject to the state Open Meetings Act.)

The board would have authority over all contracts valued at $100,000 or more and consulting or professional services contracts of $50,000 or more. In addition, “all real estate purchases, sales or leases” would have to come before the board.

And all other contracts below the threshold would have to be disclosed in postings to the county website.

In other proposals, the Council is also seeking to prevent a repetition of the secrecy and battles over appointments to the county Ethics Commission, after Hornberger fired all sitting members of the panel including those who had years left on their existing terms. She also secretly installed one member, Heather O’Rourke, after the Council refused to accept her nomination.

County Attorney Lawrence Scott, an Annapolis political consultant with no previous court representation legal experience in the state, claimed that since the Council only refused to “second” the nomination for consideration, and did not specifically vote “no,” that Hornberger could seat her anyway on the panel. But Scott’s dubious claims only came after the Council found out that Hornberger and Scott had secretly installed O’Rourke on the commission. Scott has been serving as the legal counsel to the ethics panel. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2021/06/hornberger-secretly-installs-orourke-on-ethics-panel-despite-county-councils-rejection-of-her-nomination-four-months-ago-council-members-angry-at-end-run/ ]

The County Council is now considering, with further discussions at the next worksession, a Charter amendment to share power over appointments to the Ethics panel between the Council and the Executive, with three selections each, and potentially appoint an independent legal adviser who would serve as the commission chair. An alternative proposal would give the Executive a four-member majority, including appointment of the chair, with three members named by the Council.

The Council also proposed provisions to clarify that in filling vacancies on the County Council or for County Executive, the Council has a full 30 days to review a list of names proposed by the party Central Committee representing the political affiliation of the person who is vacating the seat.

In addition, the Council supported a Charter amendment to specify directly that a member of a political party Central Committee is considered an elected official in terms of the once in a decade Redistricting Commission, although the Charter already states that no “elected” official is allowed to serve on that panel.

The Council is trying to reinforce a recent Circuit Court ruling that resoundingly dismissed a complaint by conservative gadfly Vincent Sammons, a former chair of the local Republican Central Committee, who claimed his election to that panel was not really an elected position so he should have been allowed to retain that seat while also serving on the redistricting panel.

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