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Aberdeen mayor's expenses criticized; he says they aren't out of line

Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett, shown speaking at the Route 715 interchange dedication in 2013, has full-time use of a city car and city credit card, perks not available to other municipal officials in Harford County.
Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett, shown speaking at the Route 715 interchange dedication in 2013, has full-time use of a city car and city credit card, perks not available to other municipal officials in Harford County.(DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Mike Hiob, a former city councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate, came to a recent city council meeting just to call out Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett.

Hiob says Bennett has been using his city-owned vehicle and city-provided credit card to take too many trips and to spend too much money on expensive lunches with other officials.

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Bennett says the charges are justified and a benefit to city residents, but the spat between the two political foes raises the larger question of how Harford County elected officials are reimbursed for expenses incurred while on official business.

Aberdeen is alone among Harford County's three municipalities in providing an elected official with both credit cards and city vehicles. The county executive has access to a county-owned vehicle and a county credit card. County council members also get county credit cards.

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During the Sept. 29 city council meeting, Hiob read a copy of the mayor's expenses that he obtained from the city covering the period April through August, including what he said was "a lot of gas charges."

City Clerk Monica Correll last week confirmed the validity of the reports, copies of which Hiob also gave to a reporter from The Record.

Hiob pointed out that Bennett is the first city mayor to get use of both a city-owned vehicle and a credit card, which Bennett confirmed later.

"I just have a lot of issues with the amount of fuel that's being burned with city tax dollars and lunches being bought," he said.

The receipts show numerous lunches and gas purchases around town and beyond. Between March and April, the mayor spent about $855, which includes $510 for attending the Maryland Municipal League convention. Bennett is a former MML president.

From June through July, the mayor spent $163 on gas and an MP3 player for the city's Sept. 11 Memorial unveiling. From July through August, he spent $1,061 for the statewide MACO conference in Ocean City and related expenses.

Bennett said he regularly attends MACO as it is an opportunity to tell county officials about his legislative priorities.

Councilwomen Sandra Landbeck and Ruth Ann Young, sitting on opposite sides of Bennett at the Sept. 29 meeting, defended the expenses, both saying Bennett's outreach efforts have only helped the city.

Landbeck added that when she came into office, council members each got $100 monthly for random expenses, as well as $500 for the Maryland Municipal League convention, a practice the current council ended.

She said the council members now have to submit itemized bills, for which they are reimbursed, which has saved the city a lot of money over the years.

The mayor has spent the gas money on petitioning the General Assembly to return the city's highway user revenues, among other things, she said.

"Businesses don't do business without a little bit of effort," Landbeck said. "Through his negotiations and his being out there, we will save hundreds of thousands of dollars... Please do not think that these charges are excessive. They are necessary and they are bringing back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the city every month."

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"I know the mayor works exceptionally hard doing what he's doing and I have no problem at all with accountability," Young said, adding she feels he is doing it to benefit all the residents of Aberdeen.

"We have not seen closure on the hotel [room] tax but I know that he and others work diligently to get the legislation to be where it is now," Young said.

"If anybody in this city thinks I am abusing or doing something wrong, then we have an ethics commission," Bennett said.

He said residents are free to talk to the commission, instead of standing up, trying to "showboat" and making "insinuations" at council meetings.

Bennett has been the highest-paid municipal elected official in Harford, with a salary of $10,000. Earlier this year, the city council on which Bennett has a vote, agreed to raise the salary of the next mayor to $15,000 yearly. The next city election is in November 2015.

Neither Bel Air nor Havre de Grace provide their mayors or other elected officials municipal vehicles or credit cards, Bel Air Director of Administration Michael Krantz and Havre de Grace Mayor Wayne Dougherty said last week.

Dougherty said Havre de Grace officials do have access to a pool of vehicles, but added he pays for his own gas.

City council members have not requested to be reimbursed for anything for five or six years, Havre de Grace Finance Director George DeHority said.

County Executive David Craig said he has a credit card and a county vehicle. Many county employees also get cards assigned to them and have access to a county vehicle if it is justified, he said.

Craig said his card has a $10,000 limit but he has never spent that much, while the maximum for any one item is $2,500.

He said he is also able to get gas from a special station used by the Harford County Sheriff's Office for their vehicles.

He said he uses the credit card mostly for trips to Annapolis, gas, lunch and parking, although he frequently does not have to pay lunch or parking at sites where he is a guest.

Craig said he has only asked to be reimbursed for items three or four times during his nine-plus years as county executive.

Harford County Council members have county credit cards and can be reimbursed for mileage when they use their personal vehicles, Council Administrator Pam Meister said. She did not know off-hand the spending limit on the cards.

In a phone interview last week, Bennett again defended the need to be out promoting the city.

"A municipality is no different than a business," Bennett said, calling the city's budget of roughly $14 million "nothing to sneeze at."

"You have to spend money to make money," he added. "I don't spend money frivolously."

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