Across Maryland, this has been a big week for turning over new leaves in local government as newly elected (and reelected) officials were sworn into local office from Oakland to Snow Hill. Normally, this moment offers a time for post-election healing, some bipartisan camaraderie and perhaps a little high-minded purpose. Families gather for the ceremonies. Speeches are made. Everyone is congratulated, and lots of photographs are taken. But not so much in Harford County.
Monday’s inaugural ceremonies for the Harford County Council made news for who was excluded more than what took place. Six of the seven members were sworn in. The seventh, Democrat Jacob D. Bennett, was not only absent, he wasn’t even listed on the program for the big event at Harford Community College. Oh, he was eventually sworn in, all right, but it was later that day in a private ceremony at the county clerk of courts office.
What had this person who was elected last month to represent District F done to deserve to be ostracized? Were the results in dispute? The election was close — a 92-vote margin over his Republican opponent — but that wasn’t it. Was he COVID positive? A fugitive from justice? A fugitive with COVID? No, to all of the above. It appears what this Harford County native and former Eagle Scout was publicly shunned for simply being employed by Harford County Public Schools. That’s right. Not only had incoming County Executive Robert G. Cassilly deemed Bennett’s employment as a teacher a conflict of interest specifically prohibited by the county charter, but he clearly felt the obligation to be judge, jury and executioner demanding that Bennett immediately resign from his classroom job.
First and foremost, it’s not entirely clear that this is required by the charter, which specifically bans an elected official from simultaneously serving as a county or state employee. The school system is not quite the same. There are conflicting legal opinions on the matter. And there is a process to follow, in which the proper interpretation will ultimately be settled by a judge. Disputes over charter language are not exactly rare. Why not allow the matter to respectfully play out? Here’s one possibility: Cassilly is a Republican in a county where his party is firmly in control, and Bennett is a Democrat. Oh, and Republicans these days love talking down to teachers. It’s now part of the party’s DNA, from attacks on how slavery is taught to how transgender students are assigned bathrooms.
Making this all the more ridiculous is the practical question of whether this is much of a conflict of interest at all. One council member doesn’t control the county budget, about half of which goes to the Harford County Board of Edication, and, even if Bennett were to quit his day job, wouldn’t he be expected to push for school system funding anyway? Why is this a conflict when council members with private sector jobs don’t recuse themselves from setting tax rates that apply to their property or fees that they pay or any of the hundreds of ways real people draw real and tangible benefits from county policies? And don’t get us started on campaign donations and the inherent conflicts there.
Politics ain’t beanbag, as the saying goes, and the Republican county executive doesn’t need a newbie Democrat’s vote to get things done in Bel Air. But there’s something to be said, particularly at the very start of a new term, for a bit of diplomacy and tact. As much as this may amount to a tempest in a teapot (or perhaps a childish temper tantrum is the more apt description), appearances matter. Going after a grade school teacher before he’s even taken the oath of office for the crime of listening to lawyers who assure him he doesn’t face a legal conflict of interest is a good way to be seen as authoritarian, egocentric and uncivil. That’s not the Senator Cassilly we know from Annapolis, and it’s not an approach that is going to help him lead Harford County over the next four years.
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