At its first legislative session Tuesday night with a newly elected body, the Harford County Council held a closed session to consult with lawyers to determine if council member Jacob Bennett can serve on the council while employed by Harford County Public Schools.
Bennett, the newly elected Democrat from District F, was seated in the council chamber and abstained when the vote was taken to hold the closed session.
He took the oath of office late Monday afternoon in a small ceremony at the Harford County courthouse after he was excluded from the council’s public inauguration Monday by Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly, who maintains that Bennett is unable to hold both roles.
“Our only motivation here on this side of the street is to do the right thing, according to the charter,” Cassilly said Tuesday.
The section of the charter in question states that a “council member shall not hold any other office of profit or employment in the government of the State of Maryland, Harford County, or any municipality within Harford County.”
Council President Pat Vincenti opened the council meeting by reading a statement regarding the issue, saying that “it’s clear nothing will be decided upon tonight.”
Several members of the community spoke in support of Bennett, a middle school science teacher for Harford County Public Schools, during public comments.
Gillian Miller, an Abingdon resident, addressed new council members Dion Guthrie, Aaron Penman, James Reilly and Jessica Boyle-Tsottles on the “fair treatment” they received by attending the public inauguration Monday. She then apologized to Bennett for not receiving the same, mentioning how disturbing it was to watch the inauguration with him absent and without any mention of him or why he wasn’t there.
“It was a clear indicator that the ‘good old boy’ government in Harford County is still hard at work,” Miller said. “To this, I want to say to the members of the community that are watching, there is no reason to trust Harford County government.”
A few residents who spoke about the Bennett situation said Cassilly’s actions were divisive and called on the County Council to operate in unity.
“Don’t waste our money on this nonsense,” Aberdeen resident Ryan Burbey said. “Don’t waste your reputation on someone else’s foolishness. Great things could be ahead for us.”
After public comments were heard, Vincenti gave Bennett the opportunity to open up the council remarks portion of the session.
“I look forward to serving the people of District F and all the people of Harford County,” Bennett said. “All things in my life go back to my passion for wanting to take care of others because I was taken care of. And so I hope I’m able to do that in the next four years.”
The Harford County Democratic Central Committee said it “stands by Councilman Bennett as the certified winner of the race in District F,” according a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
“Whatever concerns County Executive Cassilly proffers regarding Councilman Bennett’s eligibility to serve, the HCDCC submits that the decision is not his to make, and that the proper venue for to adjudicate conflicts over interpretation of laws is where it always has been — the courts. If he believes that he has a case, he should issue a formal legal challenge rather than attempting to publicly and unilaterally delegitimize the winner of an election.”
Cassilly said Tuesday that in his opinion Bennett is an employee of the government — although he would not clarify whether Bennett was a state or county employee.
“As an attorney, my opinion is, this is absolutely clear. You can’t do it,” Cassilly said.
Cassilly continued: “It’s time for him to pick which master he’s going to serve. Serve the board, serve the county — it’s his call.”
Bennett maintains that he is not a state or county employee because HCPS is a separate legal entity.
“We feel confident that the law is on our side, that the charter is on our side,” Bennett said. “I look forward to representing the people of District F and doing everything I can to support them.”
Bennett said he received legal advice two years ago on the matter and was assured he was not in violation of the charter. His attorney Joe Sandler, of the Washington, D.C. firm Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, P.C., said that Bennett is not an employee of Harford County or the State of Maryland.
“He doesn’t get a paycheck from either one of them,” Sandler said, clarifying that HCPS is a separate legal entity.
Bennett said his HCPS salary is $59,099 a year. Teachers’ salaries are not set by the County Council; they’re negotiated between the teachers’ union and the Harford County Board of Education. Being a member of County Council is considered a part-time position with members having other sources of income. As of Nov. 1, the council president’s salary is $52,158 and council members receive $48,273.
In a Nov. 17 letter written to two Maryland State Education Association staff members, MSEA’s general counsel Kristy Anderson said that there was no conflict of interest preventing a county teacher from serving on the County Council.
Anderson wrote: “In the case of teachers employed by the board of education, which is neither a state nor county employer, a County Council and its decision on the budget of the local school system does not result in a direct financial impact on a teacher.”
However, Sam Kahl, a spokesperson for Cassilly, previously wrote to The Aegis: “Mr. Bennett cannot be relied upon by our citizens to provide effective oversight of the County’s budget when his employer is the recipient of the major portion of that budget.”
Kimberly Neal, HCPS’ general counsel, agreed with Anderson’s opinion in a letter that she sent Nov. 29 to Kearney, Council President Patrick Vincenti and Harford County Education Association president Chrystie Crawford-Smick.
“There is no direct conflict between a BOE teacher’s role and his service on the county council,” Neal wrote.
Crawford-Smick agreed that HCPS employees are neither employees of the state nor county, and that the issue is “based on a complete misunderstanding of the county charter.”
“I see that an educator was elected to serve people in District F,” Crawford-Smick told The Aegis, “and has been bullied and denied the opportunity to take the position that he was elected to do.”
Cassilly said he decided to exclude Bennett from the public inauguration because he didn’t realize until recently that Bennett did not intend to resign from his teaching position.
“He was asking for us to give him a stage to celebrate his violation of the charter,” Cassilly said.
Vicki Jones, president of the Harford NAACP, said in a newsletter that it was “unfortunate and disturbing,” that Bennett wasn’t allowed to be sworn in alongside the other council members.
“It’s not great for bringing together the county,” Jones told The Aegis.
Henry “Sandy” Gibbons, chair of the Harford County Democratic Central Committee, concurred, saying that this prevented the citizens of District F from witnessing a peaceful transition of power.
“[It was] a real injustice and a disservice to democracy on the part of the county executive’s and county council,” Gibbons said.
“The actions of incoming County Executive Bob Cassilly in excluding Councilman Jacob Bennet from the public inauguration ceremony represent nothing less than an affront to the voters of District F, who elected him in a free and fair vote,” said the Harford County Democratic Central Committee in its statement.
Cassilly said that he would’ve done the same thing with Republican council member Aaron Penman, of District B, if Penman hadn’t resigned from his position with the Harford County Sheriff’s Office earlier this year.
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According to Harford County Sheriff’s Office spokespeople, their paychecks are issued by Harford County. Sheriff Jeff Gahler also said employees of the sheriff’s office are government employees.
“As someone who is charged with upholding the county charter, I have to take action,” Cassilly said. “It’s not directed at Jacob Bennett personally. I have no personal animus for him on any matters whatsoever.
“We’ll just let the courts deal with this now.”
Cassilly’s campaign did, however, donate $1,500 to Bennett’s opponent, Republican Curtis Beulah on Oct. 27. Vincenti’s campaign donated $3,000 to Beulah the same day. Vincenti is a Republican.
“I’m a Republican, Curtis is a Republican,” Cassilly said. “I gave contributions to a number of Republicans, as many Democrats gave contributions to a number of Democrats.”
Aegis reporter Tony Roberts contributed to this article.