The fight over a fire and emergency medical services commission for Harford County raged on Tuesday night, when the Harford County Council unanimously struck down County Executive David Craig's executive order to create the commission, and Craig immediately said the action was illegal and would be ignored.
The council struck down the executive order during Tuesday's council meeting, as Council President Billy Boniface warned that Craig's executive order set a dangerous precedent.
"I think in doing this by executive order, it makes it clear to me that the county executive is attempting to bypass the legislative process," Boniface said. "It's clear that the county executive is trying to override the legislative process."
As a history teacher, Craig should know better, Boniface said.
"Of all the people in the world, he should know we gave up on a monarchy over 250 years ago," Boniface said.
County council attorney Charles Kearney confirmed he had legal concerns about the executive order's seeming failure to establish an end date for what is supposed to be a temporary commission.
Boniface said he had offered Craig a chance to rescind the order, but Craig refused.
"His law department, which is a lot of lawyers, stands behind it," Boniface said.
Shortly after the meeting, Craig called a reporter to express his regret about the council's decision.
He said the council acted illegally because Section 4-13 of the county code says the council can only override an executive order if it changes the structure of government.
"The motion they passed will be ignored," Craig said, calling the action "unfortunate" and saying he believes the county council feels it is losing public support.
"It's unfortunate they have bad legal advice," he said.
He explained that any time an item like the order does not have an end date, it means it expires when the sitting county executive leaves office.
He said he and Boniface remain at a standstill.
"I told him he was wrong and he told me I was wrong," Craig said. "I told him he was making a big mistake."
Boniface also criticized Craig's earlier comments, made at the press conference May 8 when the county executive signed the fire commission executive order, that the council was kicking the can down the road when it came to confronting the issue of county oversight of the privately run fire and ambulance service.
The council president also pointed out that Howard County, which Harford often is compared to, has long had a similar fire and rescue board, and six of its seven members are submitted by a fire association.
"Leadership is about bringing people together," Boniface said.
Councilman Jim McMahan appeared to agree with Boniface that Craig's order challenges the legislative branch.
"There's very good reason in our charter for the legislative and executive branch," he said during the council meeting.
McMahan said two weeks before the order was issued, fire and EMS association officials Bill Dousa and Tony Bennett were sitting in his office.
"Both gentlemen agreed they could sit down and work out the differences to Bill 12-18 [creating the fire commission] if they had more time," he said, adding he was surprised when the bill was pulled after the council had worked on amendments that supposedly met the needs of the administration.
Craig withdrew the earlier legislation because a council amendment gave more votes on the panel to the fire and EMS association. He then issued the executive order unilaterally forming the commission.
Earlier in the day Tuesday, before the council voted to reject the executive order, Councilman Dion Guthrie said he thought forcing such a commission might not be the wisest move.
"I am disappointed that the county executive went that way," he said, explaining he wished Craig had gotten the cooperation of the fire service.
Guthrie said Boniface and Councilman Joe Woods had spoken with Craig about the negotiations, and both thought there would be amendments to the original proposed bill that were clearly agreed on.
"It went down the drain from there," Guthrie said.
Guthrie said the administration should have sat down with everyone instead of forcing the issue.
Now, Guthrie said, "the battle is on."
Nevertheless, Guthrie pointed out the commission will only be advisory, which means the county executive will still have to work with fire and EMS leaders.
"He makes recommendations, the fire service ignores them; I don't know where that gets us," he added.
Councilman Dick Slutzky also said that although he does not personally have any background in the fire service, he thinks the creation of the commission could have been handled better than by an executive order.
"I am not sure that that answers the issues that were brought forward during this whole process," Slutzky said. "I think there's concerns on a variety of levels."
Slutzky said maybe there is another approach to address the concerns of everyone involved.
Fire and EMS association spokesman Dave Williams did not respond to requests for comment from The Aegis.