Newly elected Harford County Council member Jacob Bennett filed a counterclaim Wednesday against the county, which went to court to bar him from serving as long as he remains a public school teacher.
Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly has said Bennett is ineligible to serve on the County Council as long as he’s a public school teacher. Cassilly said he knew Bennett was a teacher running for office but assumed he would quit his teaching job once he won in the Nov. 8 general election.
Bennett, a Democrat, beat Republican incumbent Curtis Beulah, a Cassilly supporter, for the District F council seat, which covers Havre de Grace and Aberdeen Proving Ground. In the complaint filed in Harford County Circuit Court, Bennett is asking the court to issue a temporary, then permanent order to stop the county from taking further actions to block him from serving in office.
Bennett is a first-year science teacher at Magnolia Middle School in Joppatowne after working the prior six years teaching kindergarten at Havre de Grace Elementary School. Bennett’s attorney, Joseph Sander, said the 27-year-old Bennett’s counterclaim will be considered as part of the same proceeding as the county’s lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 9.
Bennett also is asking the court to order the county to place him and his legislative aide on the county’s payroll in full standing with other County Council members. Bennett told The Aegis earlier this week that all council members received their paychecks Dec. 16 except for him. Council members each receive an annual salary of $48,273.
The county’s human resources department processes the County Council’s payroll. According to Bennett’s counterclaim, the county administrator submitted the paperwork to have Bennett and his aide added to the county payroll, but Cassilly instructed the HR department not to do it.
The counterclaim states that Bennett sought legal recourse because he saw no other way to get the county to treat him fairly.
“The reasons that Jacob needs his own determination by the court that he [is] entitled to keep his seat while continuing to pursue his livelihood as a teacher,” Sandler said Thursday in a statement. “He seeks an order from the court preventing the county from taking other actions to interfere with Jacob’s ability to serve his constituents and perform his duties as a member of the council.”
Cassilly’s spokesperson, Sam Kahl, said Thursday afternoon that they are reviewing Bennett’s counterclaim.
Bennett’s counterclaim repeatedly states that he is employed by the Harford County Board of Education. His teacher’s salary is paid by the Board of Education, as his wage statements and W-2 forms state; he does not receive state benefits and is not in the state personnel system, the counterclaim states.
It also refers to a letter Harford County Public Schools’ legal counsel sent to the county executive confirming that Bennett is employed by the school board and that there is no conflict of interest.
“The Board has the exclusive authority to hire and fire Mr. Bennett; to supervise and control his work schedule; to determine the rate and method of payment of his compensation; and to maintain his employment records,” Bennett’s counterclaim states.
“The Board is a separate ‘body politic and corporate’ established by State law,” according to the Annotated Code of Maryland Education, Article §3-104, the court filing states.
“The Board is not an agency of Harford County and is not part of the Harford County Government.”
The counterclaim argues the county “has absolutely no authority to determine the terms of his employment, or his salary or benefits.”
Cassilly, through his spokesperson, maintains that because the school system is funded by the county, there is a conflict.
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“More than half of the HCPS operating budget comes directly from the county and nearly half of the county’s entire operating budget goes to HCPS,” Kahl said. “Regardless of how HCPS administers their benefits, it is still being funded in large part directly from county tax dollars.”
Cassilly did not invite Bennett to participate when he and the County Council were sworn into office Dec. 5. Bennett took the oath of office the same day in a private ceremony with the clerk of courts at the Harford County courthouse.
Bennett has continued to serve in his elected seat at council meetings and provide updates on community news to his constituents. Bennett received his council email account Dec. 16.
On Tuesday, the County Council voted to approve more Cassilly appointments to county director positions, but Bennett said he was excluded from interviewing the nominees. The council members met individually with the nominees before the council meeting. All interviews scheduled with Bennett were canceled.
Bennett said that came under Cassilly’s direction. He said Council President Pat Vincenti met with him separately to review the nominees’ information.