Candidates’ Forum: Civility and Cliff’s Notes for Cecil County Issues

August 5, 2010

  The first local candidates’ forum this week highlighted several hot-button Cecil County issues, and personalities, but the 100 or so people who attended the “Cecil County Patriots” forum for Republican county commissioner candidates heard some thoughtful observations,  politely expressed, as well as the (we admit it) headline-grabbing political outburst by one candidate.

   As The Cecil Times reported here within two hours of the forum’s conclusion Monday night, ( https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2010/08/02/kolodzey-blasts-pipkin-smigiel-they-will-destroy-this-county/ ) political newcomer Ted Kolodzey lashed out at the powerful GOP State Sen. E.J. Pipkin and Del.  Michael Smigiel, both R-36th District.  Three  political allies of the duo,  commissioner candidates from the Cecil Young Republicans Club, boycotted the forum sponsored by the local affiliate of the “tea party” movement.

   But apart from the brief moments of drama from one candidate, attendees were given a polite, almost academic discussion of a handful of issues, with each candidate given ample opportunity and time to respond to other candidates and to make a closing statement at the end of the evening. The forum was moderated by a member of Toastmasters’ International, who simply read questions and monitored times for responses but did not interject into the candidates’ statements.

   Some absentees from the forum have been attacking the event as some sort of a lynch mob, but for anyone present at the VFW hall in North East, nothing could be farther from the reality of the event.  Regardless of one’s agreement or disagreement with the “tea party” movement or the local group, the forum could not be characterized as anything but fair to all the candidates and raising issues of general interest in the county. There was no shouting, no catcalls and only some polite applause as each panel of candidates concluded their presentations.

   That said, some of the candidates had in depth knowledge, some had one-note responses on a variety of local issues and others had just a glancing familiarity with some basic points. So here is our report on the highlights of the issues and the candidates’ comments, with a few Cliff’s Notes for background.

    1. Artesian Water takeover of county water/sewer facilities: (County Commissioners sold county-owned water and sewage treatment plants to the private Artesian operation in what was touted as a way to get private funding for expansion of infrastructure in the I-95-Rt. 40 growth corridor. The sale is currently under court challenge.)

     Tari Moore, candidate for the GOP nomination in District 2, said that “aging” systems were a cost to the county and it was better to have them “sold” to “professionals” who could operate them properly. “I think it was a wise decision,” she said. Diana Broomell, a candidate for the Republican nomination in District 4, agreed with Moore’s assertion that “aging” systems were a burden on the county and better off sold to private interests.  Kolodzey, seeking the GOP nomination in District 3, said he favored privatization of many government services: “I support anytime anything goes private.”

    But former Commissioner Harry Hepbron, seeking his old District 3 seat, questioned the decision made after he left the board to sell the water and sewer facilities to private interests. He cited upgrades to county facilities during his tenure on the board and challenged the assertion that the county was unloading “aging” and deficient facilities. Since Artesian is a private profit-making company, citizens will clearly face higher user fees to allow the company to make profits, he said. Furthermore, by giving up water and sewer lines, the county has no power over where new lines go and loses its ability to direct infrastructure to the growth corridor. He said a better option might have been keeping county control over lines but outsourcing operation of water/sewer plants.

2. Revenue Growth, Spending Cuts– Moore said it was “absolutely critical” to promote economic development but also key to reduce “wasteful spending” by county government. Kolodzey said there should be significant spending cuts in county government and “they have to be forced.” Broomell cited her work organizing several “tea party” events last year as proof of her commitment to cutting spending by government and said the county budget should “start at zero” each year.

    Hepbron advocated a balanced approach, calling for expansion of the revenue base through incentives to business to locate in the county and create jobs for local residents as well as “in house” efficiencies and cost-savings. He cited his role as a commissioner in promoting “green power” to recapture gases from the county landfill that could be used as energy sources for the county to cut costs as well as selling energy to business as a new revenue source.

3. Economic Development/Jobs– (The current county budget cut spending for economic growth initiatives. Recent reports show most of the BRAC economic development, due to expansion of operations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, is going to  job creation in Harford County.)

   Kolodzey said it was a “chicken and the egg” proposition and that cutting county taxes was top priority: “You need to do that (cut taxes) first and jobs will come second.” Hepbron said that “new jobs mean new revenues” for the county so that there is less reliance on property taxes to fund the county budget. He cited his experience  as a Commissioner to lure large businesses to the county with incentives, due to competition from nearby states, and that such incentives pay off in the long run through increased revenues and job creation.

    Broomell said that local employers and Cecil College should work together to promote job skills needed by business. She also said she was concerned that “we allow franchises to come in and undercut local business…the Super Wal-Mart’s are very detrimental to our local businesses.” Moore said that the county’s economic development office had brought in more new jobs than were lost due to the recession. She said the county needs to more aggressively seek BRAC-related jobs and economic development.

4. Charter Government– (Voters will decide on the November ballot whether to approve a change from commissioners to charter government, with a highly compensated, elected county executive in charge of most day to day decisions with a lower-paid, no benefits panel of county council members acting as reviewers of county executive actions.)

  Most of the candidates opposed charter government, with some saying it would cost taxpayers more money. Broomell said she favored “code home rule,” which would keep the current 5-member commissioners’ panel without a county executive, because code home rule provides more independence from Annapolis than either the current 5-member Commissioners form of government or the proposed charter government. (But code home rule is not on the ballot for voters to consider, only a yes or no vote on whether to adopt a charter form of government.)

  Kolodzey also opposed charter, saying he favored the commissioner form of government. “It will cost more and not be more efficient,” he said of charter government. Moore said that it was “more important who we elect” than the form of government. She said there needed to be more long-range planning for the future of the county.

  Hepbron cited his experience under the old three-member commissioners board, where there could be compromises reached after back-and-forth discussions, versus the newer five-member, staggered terms board. He said the current system led to stalemate, with two or three members always running for re-election and unwilling to make tough decisions.  In contrast to this system, he said he would favor charter government. But he also indicated he would be comfortable with an enhanced-powers five-member board, such as would be provided under code home rule form of government.

   The Cecil County Patriots will host another candidates forum later this month for Democratic candidates for County Commissioner.


Cecil Charter Board Reverses Course, Votes for At-Large Council

June 21, 2010

   The Cecil County Charter Board reversed course Monday night, voting to propose a charter form of government in which County Council members would be elected at-large by all voters in the county. The Board had previously proposed election of council members only by residents of their own district.

    The Charter Board voted 6-2 to revise the proposed charter, which has been the subject of multiple public hearings throughout the county for months. Barry Montgomery and Robert Gell voted against the change to at-large election of all council members.

   The Charter Board was appointed by the County Commissioners last year and tasked with producing a proposal to change the form of local government in Cecil County from the current five-member Board of Commissioners to a charter form of government with a County Executive and a County Council. Charter government counties have more local powers than the Commissioner form of government, which requires state General Assembly authorization of most major decisions.

   The Charter Board will present its charter proposal to the county Commissioners July 19 but the Commissioners have no power to make any changes in the document, which will be submitted to voters in a referendum on the November ballot, according to Joyce Bowlsbey, chair of the Charter Board.

   The about-face by the panel on Monday reflected growing concerns that such a significant shift in the way that citizens elect their county representatives could sink the entire charter effort.  Dan Schneckenburger, vice chair of the panel, said that even supporters of a charter form of government had strong concerns about district-only elections.

 County Commissioners are currently elected at-large and that requires all commissioners to campaign throughout the county and listen to citizens’ concerns even if they live outside the Commissioner’s district. But supporters of district-only elections say that some parts of the county, such as the largely rural south county, have unique concerns and issues that are ignored in favor of the more urban areas under the current system once an election is over.

   County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) urged the Charter Board to change the proposal to provide at-large election of council members, saying, “I want the best people” to run for the council,  and district-only election would lead to partisanship and “parochial attitudes.” He said that the current 1st, 2nd and 4th Commissioner districts are largely Democratic in registration and would probably support Democrats. “That’s bad,” Hodge said. “I’m afraid a commissioner would only be looking out for his own back yard” rather than the best interest of the whole county.

   The current Board of Commissioners has three Republican seats– the 1st, 2nd and 5th. However, the 2nd District seat is up for election this year. Republican Rebecca Demmler is not seeking re-election. A candidate for the GOP nomination for the 2nd District seat, Tari Moore, attended the Charter Board meeting and agreed with Hodge that at-large election of County Council members was best for the county. “It would be a lot easier, and cheaper, to have to run only from one district,” she said. “But it’s not good government.”

   The charter proposal would cut the pay of county commissioners and strip them of health and other benefits if a shift to charter government is approved by voters. But charter would add an elected, full-time County Executive, to be paid “not less than” $98,000 a year, plus full benefits.

   Cecil County voters have repeatedly rejected charter government in the past and have also voted down Code Home Rule, a less drastic revision in the form of government. Code Home Rule retains the commissioner system, without a county executive, and provides many of the same powers as charter, and in some cases grants more autonomy from second-guessing by Annapolis than charter government.

   The push for charter this year reflects growing dissatisfaction in Elkton with efforts by some members of the state legislative delegation to micro-manage the county government. In particular, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) and Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) sponsored legislation to limit Cecil County Commissioners’ authority on property tax levels and labor relations, prompting the Commissioners to hire a lobbyist and successfully defeat the legislators’ efforts. But Pipkin and Smigiel’s battles with the Commissioners go back many years, before the current board, and they were also defeated on other issues.

   Supporters of charter government have formed a political committee with a website, www.friendsofcharter.com and are expected to campaign for voter support in the referendum.  Pipkin and Smigiel and their allies are expected to oppose charter, which would diminish their power to control the county government from Annapolis.

    However, with just a few weeks left before the election filing deadline, Pipkin has not yet filed for re-election to his Senate seat and is said to be considering a statewide run for Comptroller. Smigiel has not yet filed for re-election as a delegate. Del. Richard Sossi, R-36, has filed for re-election but has told The Cecil Times he would run for the Senate seat if Pipkin vacates it.