ELKTON — County Executive Tari Moore is once again a Republican after returning to the party fold last month.
She confirmed Friday that she switched her registration back to Republican online Nov. 11, nearly one year after becoming “unaffiliated.”
Moore, who has been a lifelong Republican, switched to unaffiliated last year in between her election and being sworn in as county executive.
That decision quickly brought criticism by some Republicans, namely members of the central committee, many of whom had run on a fiscal conservative slate endorsed by Smigiel and former State Sen. E.J. Pipkin, and even sparked a lawsuit accusing Moore of circumventing the political process.
A visiting judge ruled in early October in favor of Moore in the suit filed in January by Delegate Michael Smigiel (R-Upper Shore) on behalf of Chris Zeauskas, chairman of the Cecil County Republican Central Committee and also one of three candidates nominated by the committee to replace Moore on the county council.
That suit challenged Moore’s right to appoint Joyce Bowlsbey to fill her vacant seat on the county council. Retired Harford County Circuit Court Judge Thomas E. Marshall granted Moore’s motion to dismiss Smigiel’s lawsuit, affirming that Moore did not violate the county charter when she made the appointment and that Zeauskas lacked standing.
“I waited until the lawsuit was settled and the 30-day appeal process had passed (to change my affiliation),” Moore said.
“I believe my duty to all citizens of Cecil County now transcends party affiliation,” Moore said last year at her swearing-in ceremony. She noted then that she was taking the job of selecting her replacement away from the central committee and gave it to the new county council.
“I wanted the candidate to fill the vacancy to be the most qualified person, regardless of party,” Moore said. “Charter allowed for the best person to be selected.”
“I caught a lot of flak last year when I switched and eventually a lawsuit,” she said Friday. “Ultimately, the letter after my name doesn’t change who I am, how I govern, or the decisions I make.”
“The judge was clear that I did not violate the charter,” added Moore, who said she knows in her heart that she did the right thing.
Reflecting on it now, Moore said, “It was a pretty bold thing. I felt I had to return Cecil County to those who are elected to represent people on the county level.”
Smigiel is now asking the court to deny the county’s request requiring him to pay nearly $40,000 in legal fees incurred by the county in defense of the executive.
Smigiel argues, in his response, that Zeauskas has standing because of his position with the central committee and because he was a candidate for the vacant seat on the council.
He says the county’s financially-motivated motion has no merit, but the case he brought against the county does have merit and that Zeauskas has standing. Smigiel filed the lawsuit pro-bono, which means he didn’t charge the defendant for his services.
“I’ve brought many pro-bono suits against the government in my career on behalf of citizens with some success,” Smigiel said. “I tried to keep this one out of the courts, but I had no choice but to file it after the former county attorney advised (Cecil County Councilwoman) Diana Broomell to seek a personal attorney for a legal opinion regarding the legality of the actions taken by Moore.”
At the time, Broomell and Councilman Michael Dunn asked for the legal opinion, but Councilmen Alan McCarthy and Robert Hodge voted against asking for a legal opinion, resulting in a 2-2 tie, which denied the request. Without authority to give a legal opinion, the county attorney told Broomell her option would be to hire an attorney.
At the crux of Smigiel’s original suit on behalf of Zeauskas was the argument that Moore switched her political party registration shortly after the election last year from Republican to unaffilliated, taking power away from the Republican Central Committee to select Moore’s replacement on the council.
In his response filed Nov. 22, Smigiel is quick to point out that Moore has switched her registration back to Republican.
An act, he says, “clearly establishes her attempt to confuse her ‘affiliation’ with her ‘registration’ and was a blatant political move meant to deprive the duly elected members of the central committee the ability to perform their legally designated function of replacing certain elected positions which become vacant.”
Smigiel called the county’s attempt to recoup legal fees from a pro-bono attorney as nothing more than a “slap suit,” or an attempt to send a message to all citizens not to attempt to challenge government when they perform questionable actions or circumvent the separation of powers between executive and legislative branches.
County Attorney Jason Allison, who filed the motion to ask the judge to force Smigiel to pay the legal costs born by the county, denies the county’s suit is a slap suit.
“We’re not trying to stop citizens from filing lawsuits against the government if they have merit,” Allison said after filing the motion. He argues that Smigiel’s case had no merit.
He said Smigiel’s lawsuit was filed without substantial justification and multiple requests for dismissal were ignored.
“He basically re-argued his original point in his response,” Allison said Friday. “It’s full of red herrings.”