Cecil County News

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Cecil County Charter Amendments

                At the February 8th Council Work Session, the County Council considered eight potential amendments to the County Charter that, if advanced, would be put to the voters as a referendum at the next general election. As required in the Cecil County Charter, any amendment must be approved by voters at the ballot box before becoming law. In the history of charter government in Cecil County, only four amendments have ever been put to a referendum, making the eight amendments offered at Tuesday’s work session an unusual occurrence.

Cecil County Council: Al Miller, Jackie Gregory, Bob Meffley, Donna Culberson and Bill Coutz.

                At the February 8th Council Work Session, the County Council considered eight potential amendments to the County Charter that, if advanced, would be put to the voters as a referendum at the next general election. As required in the Cecil County Charter, any amendment must be approved by voters at the ballot box before becoming law. In the history of charter government in Cecil County, only four amendments have ever been put to a referendum, making the eight amendments offered at Tuesday’s work session an unusual occurrence.

                While the proposed amendments impacted different elements of the Charter, the majority of the amendments centered around one thing, increasing the County Council’s power. One amendment would have given the Council power to unilaterally reshape the County’s budget, another would have given the Council outsized influence on the Ethics Commission, and yet another would have created a position requiring county taxpayers to pay for a full-time Council attorney.

                Of the eight proposed amendments, four were moved forward, three were narrowly defeated, and one is being changed to be reintroduced at a later date. The four amendments that have been approved will ask voters to weigh in on changes regarding the processes for capital purchases, redistricting, and reducing ambiguity in the charter surrounding vacancies. The one tabled amendment concerned the composition of the Ethics Commission and will be voted on at a later date in order to clarify the wording of the amendment. Lastly, of the three that were defeated two were attempting give the Council a permanent attorney paid for by the County, and the other would have allowed the County Council to redistribute funds in the County budget at the Council’s sole discretion.

                The unusually high number of amendments calls into question the timing of their introduction. The amendments would need to be ratified by a referendum, so it is not unusual that they would be introduced in an election year. But what is unusual are the circumstances of the Council’s composition going into the upcoming election. Three of the five current Council members are beholden to the Cecil Business Leaders PAC, which is an entity created to funnel money toward political candidates that will act in accordance with the wishes of the monied interests that put them there, and not what is always in the best interest of Cecil County. The three CBL members on the County Council are Bob Meffley, Bill Coutz, and Al Miller. Coutz and Miller are both up for election this year, making this potentially the last chance the CBL has to concentrate power in the County Council. This concentration is further necessitated, in the eyes of the CBL, since they no longer control the County Executive now that Alan McCarthy was voted out. If Miller and Coutz are unseated by actual conservatives, the CBL PAC will have been displaced from the Executive and Legislative branches of our local government. In 2020 they were unable to win elections, so now they are trying to change the rules.

                These amendments are thrown under an additional shadow, when it came to light in the working session that the County Attorney was provided with the proposed amendments only hours before the meeting, leaving no time for review. This prevented the County Attorney from being able to provide specific feedback on the amendments at the time of the meeting, which is when the amendments were going to be voted on for advancement.

The amendments did meet resistance from Councilwoman Gregory and Councilwoman Culberson who understood the ramifications of the amendments and argued against fundamental change that would alter the balance of power in our government. Perhaps the most contentious part of the work session came during the discussion surrounding the amendment that would give the Council the ability to reallocate the County’s budget after it was submitted by the County Executive. As it currently stands, the County Council has the ability to remove items from the budget, but does not have the ability to add items. The proposed amendment would have given the Council the power to reallocate money from one part of the budget to the other unilaterally. In other words, if the County budget was $100 and gave $10 to 10 different departments, the County Council could move all $100 to a single department, without review and without approval from the County Executive, leaving nine departments with no funding.

                It was appropriately noted during the discussion of this amendment, that the reason for Cecil County’s desire to form a Charter government was, in part, to remove the budget making powers from the County Commissioners. The Commissioners, who were essentially equivalent to the current Council, were often unable to find agreement on the specific allocations of the county budget. The solution as part of our transition to a charter government, was to vest the budget making power in a single authority, with the Council acting as a check on that authority by being able to remove any item. This amendment would have undone that entire change by allowing the Council to put money anywhere they wanted, so long as it was offset from another part of the budget. The Council would have been able to rewrite the entire budget, so long as the bottom-line number remained unchanged.

                This amendment was ultimately voted down 3-2 with Councilman Meffley and Coutz voting in the minority. However, unsatisfied with the results, Councilman Coutz brought up the amendment that had already been voted down later in the meeting and Councilman Meffley tried to change the results by calling for another vote. The measure was met with the same outcome.

                The constant grab for power has been the hallmark of the County Council over the past two years, with the lead being taken by Councilmen Meffley, Coutz, and Miller. So long as the Cecil Business Leaders PAC has puppets in places of power in the County, we will continue to see actions taken that serve the interest of the connected and powerful, and not the County. The recent push to change the Charter comes on the back of the

Councilman Miller is currently facing a challenger from Republican Central Committeeman Bob Gatchel. Voters seeking to make a change in the direction of the Council, and thereby the County will need to vote in the Primary Election, which will take place on June 28, 2022.

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