Harford circuit court judge dismisses Aberdeen ethics commission case against mayor

A Harford County Circuit Court judge has overturned the Aberdeen Ethics Commission's ruling against city Mayor Mike Bennett that had called into question his trip to Georgia to promote the IronBirds baseball team.

Judge Stephen Waldron called the commission's decision "inconsistent with common sense" and an abuse of discretion, in his Nov. 7 ruling.

Meanwhile, Bennett said after a city work session Monday that the four commission members - one seat is vacant - have been asked to step down and five new members will be appointed Nov. 25.

The commission members' terms expired earlier, but they have stayed on the board voluntarily, Bennett noted.

The commission admonished Bennett for not reporting his plan to promote the IronBirds in Augusta, Ga., in 2011 at the behest of Ripken Baseball. The board said the intent was to benefit Ripken Baseball, not the city.

The complaint was originally brought by Bennett's opponent in the mayoral race, Patrick McGrady, who Waldron said in his ruling "abandoned the complaint and lost all interest once his opportunity vanished to derive any further political benefit from the same."

Waldron ordered the commission to reverse and vacate its decision.

He said in the ruling that while the trip was "for the benefit of Ripken Baseball, it was the mayor's objective and agenda to help Aberdeen derivatively by helping Ripken Baseball. Such an effort in the goal of economic development lies squarely in the role of a mayor to help the economic growth of his city."

Citing the 2001 case of State Ethics Commission v. Antonetti, Waldron wrote that "the commission's decision is merely second-guessing executive action and discretion, which is better reserved to be evaluated at the ballot box."

Bennett said Monday he felt relieved after Waldron's decision.

"I really felt like a ton was lifted [from me]," Bennett said.

City Manager Doug Miller said the ethics board "unfortunately" did not follow the city's own procedures and due process.

He added that if the decision had stood, it could have adversely affected how future councils and mayors deal with their jobs.

Waldron's decision means the mayor is allowed to act as "cheerleader-in-chief, if you will, for the city," Miller said.

Bennett also said the decision has "very significant impact" on other municipalities and jurisdictions.

"Now there's case law that says one of the roles of a mayor is to be basically a cheerleader for his city and promote economic growth within the city," Bennett said.

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