County changes to charter

In this January 2014 photo, former County Executive Tari Moore reviews Cecil County’s transition to charter government before answering citizen questions for nearly two hours. Now, nearly 10 years after the passage of charter government, it’s still a “living” document.

ELKTON — Cecil County moved to become a charter government in 2010 — last week council members started the conversation changing eligibility rules so that more residents may run for office.

Yesterday, at its regular council work session, the Cecil County Council continued the conversation.

Following a special session next week, a public hearing may be set on July 28 regarding amendments to the county charter in order to ensure the referendum is put on the November ballot.

During last week’s council work session, council members initiated discussions for a November referendum that would allow residents with positions in the county to run for office.

“In our current charter it disqualifies council candidates who hold other public office or employed in a public agency, department, board, commission or other public body receiving county funds or are involved in doing business with the county. ….” said James Massey, council manager during the June 16 workshop, adding that retired or former county employees are also disqualified from running for office.

Cecil County Council President Bob Meffley, who sparked the conversation, says that in small communities — such as Cecil County — “some people are wearing four or five hats” and he doesn’t see why that can’t apply to county council members.

“The reason for [amending the charter] is to bring more people to the table when we have an election,” Meffley said on June 16.

In an interview with the Whig, Meffley expanded on this point. In recent meetings, Meffley has been called on by certain groups in the county to resign — yet, Meffley has run opposed for his District 1 seat.

The council president has been vocal over the past few months — in the heat of a special primary election — about bringing in more contenders for county races. He said that he’s previously had conversations with law enforcement officers, librarians, teachers and Cecil College staff that had expressed interest in running for office, but could not.

“And why not,” he said. “If there’s a real good candidate and they bring a lot to the table, I’ll be the first to back you up.”

Ultimately though, if the county council decides to spruce the charter, it will come down to the voters in November. If the voters decide to open up qualified candidates, Council Member Bill Coutz clarified, they still have to vote this larger pool into office.

”All we’re doing is allowing them to be eligible,” Coutz said.

The county charter, which was developed from other county governments, would, again, be amended based on examples from within the state. Frederick County was presented as a template.

“The amendment would be from what other counties already are currently doing,” said Council member George Patchell. “So we’re not picking this out of the sky. These are current charter governments that have these type of qualifications for candidates in Maryland.

“So again, it’s been done in other counties. So it’s not as if we’re rewriting the rules.”

The council looked at Frederick and Baltimore county charters as a starting point last week. Though most of the council was in agreement — that the charter could be looked at for change — Council Member Al Miller dissented from the rest.

“I just want to be careful that we do a good job of looking at it before we throw it into the to the public,” Miller said on June 16. “I’d like to go over it more. It was a last minute thing.”

He echoed his sentiment at yesterday’s meeting, as he does not agree with comparing Frederick and Cecil counties. He would prefer to look at sizeable county charters.

”I really don’t have a problem with the way the charter is written today,” Miller said.

Miller was the only council member to vote against pushing the amendments through.

However, Council Member Coutz said that in a small county, such as Cecil, expanding eligibility for council leadership would open the “much smaller pool” of qualified “and willing” candidates for county council.

Some may argue that the change comes after Council Vice President Jackie Gregory run-in with the county Ethics Commission. (Gregory, who served as both a council member and substitute teacher for Cecil County Public Schools, was recently found “in appearance” of violating the ethics code. The Ethics Commission decided that her proximity to school budgets required an application for exception if she wished to continue teaching. Gregory resigned as a sub at the end of April and has since applied for the exception.)

However, Meffley has held the stance that the charter should be more inclusive.

”Any one who is not under the control of the county executive” would not be eligible to run, if voters pass the referendum, Meffley said. It would also include staff under the county’s judiciary and legislative branch.

Gregory clarified that conflicts of interest needn’t be in the county charter and are decided on separately.

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