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.

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Cecil Commissioner Race: Mullin Bankrolls Zeauskas

February 1, 2010

   In Cecil County, political history often repeats itself, with a few twists and turns.  So it was with surprise, but not shock, that we saw that Cecil County Commissioner James Mullin (R-1st)–with many other “AKA” names  on state campaign finance records– is the chief funder of the campaign of Republican political newcomer Chris Zeauskas, running for the Republican nomination for County Commissioner in the Second District.

   Zeauskas, a leader of the Cecil County Young Republicans Club and the declared president of a group called “Cecil Citizens Against Taxation,” is seeking the Republican nomination for the 2nd District Commissioner seat currently held by Rebecca Demmler,  a Republican who has declared she is not a candidate for re-election.

   (Another announced candidate for the Republican nomination for the seat is Tari Moore, a former official with the county Chamber of Commerce and the former campaign manager for current Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5). The only announced Democratic contender for the seat is Earl Piner, Sr., an Elkton town commissioner, former School Board member and longtime community volunteer and youth sports coach.)

   But there is one real surprise in Zeauskaus’ campaign finance report filed with the state Board of Elections: one of his biggest fundraiser supporters is Democratic candidate for Sheriff Chris Sutton and his campaign organization.  Only in Cecil County…

   Zeauskas’ finance report shows total fundraising of $4,647, with expenses of $4,367. But since the January report is his first, a line item sure to get the attention of State Board of Elections auditors is the listing of a $1,165 “prior balance” in his campaign account, with no disclosure of where that money came from. That said, he lists his net cash on hand as $1,445.

   Under contributions, “Jim Mullin” of “Chesapeake City” (actually, Commissioner James Mullin lives in the Hacks Point community in Earleville),  is listed as donating $1,575–or the vast majority of Zeauskas’ contribution total of $2,142.  Under fundraiser tickets, “Jim Mullin” is listed as the top purchaser, with $450 in ticket purchases to a fundraiser at the Patriots Glen golf clubhouse.

   That makes Commissioner Mullin the top total contributor–$2,025– to Zeauskas’ campaign.

   Zeauskas was an outspoken antagonist to Commissioner Hodge at the county’s January preliminary budget hearing. He did not attack Commissioner Mullin, who also voted for the county’s last budget.

   Chris Sutton, a county Sheriff’s Deputy and second-time Democratic opponent to incumbent Republican Sheriff Barry Janney, shows up as a surprise donor to Republican Commissioner candidate Zeuaskas: Sutton is listed as purchasing fundraiser tickets totaling $225, with another $45 in ticket purchases by Sutton’s campaign treasurer, Patrick Tuer, a “Cecil County Young Democrats” activist.

   The Mullin cash infusion to Zeauskas’ campaign is strangely familiar.  When Mullin ran for county Commissioner in the last election, Republican Commissioner Rebecca Demmler was his chief campaign bankroller, as the Cecil Times reported here:

https://ceciltimes.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/demmler-bankrolls-mullin-commissioner-payback-time/

   Demmler spent more on Mullin’s campaign than she did on her own. Prior to becoming a county Commissioner, Demmler never held a more financially lucrative job than an occasional substitute teacher job and her husband is a retired boiler operator.  Those facts led many county political observers to wonder whether some other Republican– perhaps a “large” presence in county and state GOP politics– was really the bankroller.  The latest Mullin donations may revive that sort of speculation.

   NEWS UPDATE:  In an interview with The Cecil Times, Zeauskas said his campaign treasurer was working with the State Elections Board to resolve issues surrounding his listing of a previous campaign balance that seemed to be a “mistake.”  He said the bankrolling of his campaign by Commissioner Mullin stemmed from his past volunteer involvement in Mullin’s campaign as a “door to door” campaign volunteer. He said he believed that Commissioner Demmler was planning to support his primary opponent and that he had “nothing personal” against Commissioner Hodge.

   “It wasn’t a budget question,” Zeauskas said of his aggressive questioning of Commissioner Hodge at the January budget hearing. He said he opposed a county takeover of utilities lines from Port Deposit that would serve the proposed Bainbridge complex. He noted that Mr. Mullin opposed that takeover. He said that his primary campaign issue, however, was the budget and county spending.

   As far as Chris Sutton’s support– along with a generous donation from the Cecil County FOP– Zeauskas said he had met with local law enforcement officials to discuss crime and believed they liked his views. He said he supports binding arbitration for Sheriff’s deputies’ labor disputes, a controversial budget issue. Some current Commissioners fear that an outside arbitrator would force the county and its taxpayers to fund a potentially costly labor settlement regardless of county resources. (See Chris Sutton’s comment posted below)

   Zeauskas also said that Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) was not taking an active supportive role in his campaign and had advised him that he would not be involved in the Republican primary for the Commissioner seat.


Fifth District Commissioner Race: Home Cookin’ and Stewart’s Money

November 3, 2008

  The Republican and Democratic opponents in the Fifth District contest for Cecil County Commissioner have raised comparable amounts of campaign contributions, while write-in candidate Tom McWilliams has a secret weapon: his wife’s home cooking, according to campaign finance reports filed Oct. 24.

    But some supporters of the two major candidates might be surprised at just who is donating to them.

   McWilliams, a perpetual candidate who has previously run unsuccessfully for Commissioner and a school board seat, lost the Republican primary to Robert Hodge, a local businessman and farmer. McWilliams is waging an uphill struggle as a write-in candidate in the November election and has held yard sales and picnics, raising just $886 in direct contributions and $1,050 in fundraiser ticket purchases. He also loaned his campaign $6,000 in October. McWilliams lists $372 in in-kind donations, such as food and drinks for fundraising events. While several people donated appetizers valued at $10, his wife’s culinary contribution was valued at $50. A smart husband knows to compliment his wife’s cooking, even in politics.

     Hodge reports raising a total of $21,405, including loaning his campaign $3,000. His Democratic opponent, Sharon Weygand, reports raising a total of $19,637, with no loans. The candidates are running for the seat now held by Commissioner Mark Guns, who decided not to run for re-election.  Hodge has had a high-profile candidacy all year, with many paid billboard sites on highways around the county.  Weygand seemed to have a lower profile–waving hand-held signs on Route 40– so it is perhaps surprising to see that she raised so much money and had no loans, according to the October reports.  There could still be a last minute infusion of cash on both sides in the last week or so before the election, but we won’t know the final contributions tally until after the election when new reports are filed.

     Weygand’s largest chunk of donations– $3,000– came from two entities related to the Stewart’s land development business: $1,500 from Stewart Associates Land Development, Inc.,  and $1,500 from York Building Products Co. Both firms have the same address in York, PA and are part of the Stewart Companies. Stewart’s, one of the largest landowners in the county, is banking heavily on approval of the statewide slots referendum and has signed an option deal with Penn National gaming that wants to develop a slots facility on Stewart land in Cecil County. York Building Products operates three sand and gravel production sites in Cecil County.

   The Stewart-related donations amounted to more than a quarter of Weygand’s $11,555 in contributions from individuals and businesses. That might surprise some of the no-growth folks who made small donations to her campaign, too.

 Other major donations to Weygand include $1,000 from Klines Live Fish Co. in Chesapeake City; $1,000 from Hutton Farms in Elkton, and $500 from Alice Arbuckle, who ran unsuccessfully for County Commissioner in the last local election and famously advocated county-hosted camel races as a tourist attraction. Weygand also received $345 from the husband (Ron) of County Commissioner Rebecca Demmler,  $200 from former County Commissioner and restauranteur Phyllis Kilby, $100 from retiring County Commissioner Bill Manlove, $80 from Commissioner Wayne Tome and $20 from Commissioner Brian Lockhart. 

    Weygand also received a $1,000 donation from the Political Action Committee (PAC) associated with Lodge 2, Cecil County Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed her candidacy; $500 from the county’s Democratic Central Committee; $750 from the county Democrat Club and $100 from the campaign of Frank Kratovil, the Democratic nominee in the 1st District Congressional contest.

    Weygand did not disclose individual identities for most of the ticket purchasers for her fund-raising events, tallying a total of $5,613 in ticket sales.

   On the Republican side, Hodge reported individual and business donations of $7,140– actually, less than Weygand’s $11,555. Unlike Weygand, Hodge reports amounts and identities for ticket purchases by individuals and businesses, totaling $6,465.

    Hodge’s largest individual donation of $1,000 came from Railroad Associates Corp. of Hershey, Pa. A local business, Graphics Inc., gave $500 plus $500 in ticket purchases, for a total of $1,000. Norman Wehner, a local property owner active with the county landlord’s association, donated $500 plus purchased fundraiser event tickets worth $100. James Buckland, an executive with Artesian water that recently won County Commissioners’  approval for its takeover of county water and sewer facilities, bought Hodge fundraiser tickets worth $150.

 Most of Hodge’s donations were fairly small and many came from recognizable Republicans around the county. Business entities donating included Perrin Accounting of North East ($500 in donations), Priapi Gardens in Cecilton ($200 in ticket purchases); Kingfisher Environmental  Services, Inc., of Elkton ($200 in ticket purchases.) There were also fundraiser ticket purchases from some individuals involved in real estate, such as $250 in tickets bought by Harlan Williams and his wife.

    Hodge also received $2,500 from Republican clubs and $2,200 from the county’s GOP central committee. Del. Dick Sossi (R) bought a $25 fundraiser ticket, as did Republican commissioner 1st District candidate Jim Mullin. Commissioner Rebecca Demmler– a fellow Republican and the chief donor to Mullin’s campaign, giving him $2,500– anted up just $50 for Hodge fundraiser tickets.

   Which just goes to show: in politics, it isn’t always just about politics or party labels.