ELKTON - The Cecil County commissioners violated state law when they unanimously approved key changes to their operating guidelines, according to an opinion by the state attorney general's office.
Republican Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr. sought the opinion after a resident objected to the ordinance passed by the Board of Commissioners.
"They are operating more like a charter form of government than a commissioners form of government," Smigiel said last week. "They violated the law. ... You can do this if you are the county executive or if you have home rule or a charter government, but we don't have that in Cecil County."
Nelson K. Bolender, president of the board of commissioners, admits a mistake was made in December when the five-member board approved an ordinance increasing from three to four the number of commissioners needed to constitute a quorum at a meeting.
The ordinance also altered the number of votes needed to approve amendments to board policies and procedures from a simple majority to a unanimous vote, a provision Bolender also conceded is flawed.
"But this is making a mountain out of a molehill," Bolender said of Smigiel's questioning of the board's action.
"Anytime you have public officials granting themselves more power than they have been given by statute, the public should be worried," Smigiel said. "They took an oath to adhere to the constitution and state law."
He added: "Mistakes can be made. That's OK. What is the most grievous part of this incident is the response when it was pointed out to the commissioners that their action was in violation of state law. Bolender said: 'So sue us.'"
The comment was made to Billy Jo Jackson, a North East resident who first questioned the commissioners' action.
"I probably shouldn't have said that," Bolender said. "But we really thought what we did was OK. ... It is not taking anything away from the people of Cecil County. It doesn't give me any more power.
"In all honesty, we did not think we needed authority from the state. I know the attorney's general office has ruled that we did need it, and in hindsight perhaps we should have gone to the General Assembly and asked for the authority."
He said the ordinance was advertised, placed on the agenda and subjected to a public hearing when it was first proposed. "There was no public comment whatsoever. There was no objection to it."
Jackson, whose husband is a former commissioner and former county treasurer, said she believed the proposed measure gave too much power to the president of the board of commissioners, in this case Bolender.
"It seemed to me it was more like a charter government," she said.
Jackson then contacted Smigiel and asked him to get a ruling on the matter.
"If you are going to be in county government, you should live by the rules and regulations," said Jackson, a 67-year-old retired commercial real estate agent. "You don't go changing things around and not expect citizens to be curious or wonder why you did certain things."
Such a procedural move by a government is rare in Maryland, said Michael Sanderson, legislative director for the Maryland Association of Counties.
"I'm not saying that something like this has not happened before," he said, "but I've never heard of it happening. This is a new one on me."
Bolender said the changes affected only the way the commissioners govern themselves. "That's what I have trouble with," he said. "It is governing ourselves. How anyone could object to that is beyond me."
He said he thought it was fairer to the public to have at least four commissioners involved in a decision. The board president pointed out that any bill or other legislation still would require three votes to be accepted or rejected.
The provision requiring a unanimous vote to amend a board policy is illegal, said Assistant Attorney General Robert A. Zarnoch in the ruling. On the question of raising the quorum requirement, Zarnoch wrote that "absent specific authorization by the General Assembly, a Commissioner County cannot adopt a rule establishing a higher quorum requirement."
Bolender said the measure requiring unanimous approval on changes to board procedures is "no big deal" and would likely be dropped. But he said he would seek legislative approval next year for increasing the quorum standard.
Already, Smigiel is expressing opposition to the concept of such a request.
"They will be asking us to put in legislation next year to justify their violation of the law," Smigiel said. "I simply can't do that. I don't want to be a part of giving legitimacy to an abuse of their authority and power."