Pro Charter Group Bankrolls Billboard Advertising Campaign by Conducting BRAC Tour

Friends of Cecil County Charter, an organized political group supporting the ballot effort to alter the form of local government recently launched a billboard campaign urging voters to support the initiative.  As a result Someone Noticed started receiving posts saying highway signs displaying the official county seal were financed by public funds.  Rather than permit those unverified remarks to appear on the weblog Someone Noticed has been working to verify the reports.  Now that we’ve finished that initial task and since rumors about this are widespread we’re posting our news story.     

We began looking into things by speaking with Craig Whiteford, the county budget director.  Once Craig heard the query, he said he was sure public funds weren’t used for the campaign, but he’d check into it to verify his information.  Within minutes, the finance officer called back  to say they’d had other calls about this so he didn’t have much work to do as the administration already checked on the matter.  The county hadn’t paid for the pro-charter advertising drive.     

Someone Noticed next spoke with Joyce Bowlsbey, a representative of the group playing an active role in county politics as voters get ready to head to the polls in November.  A large part of the revenue came about because the County Department of Economic Development arranged for the nonprofit registered with the Maryland Board of Elections as an issues committee to conduct a tour for BRAC workers considering the area as a place to relocate, we were informed.     

As the deadline for the New Jersey workers to finish the transition neared, there was a need to accommodate two tours at once at the end of August.  Economic Development didn’t have the resources to accommodate both groups, the spokesperson for Economic Development advised.  Army regulations require local governments or nonprofits to host tours as a builder or real estate firm isn’t allowed to directly sponsor the hosted marketing effort.  The spokesperson continued saying, that the Friends of Charter was willing to do the tour as they were available on a short notice.  Plus, they were acquainted with the county and thus able to facilitate a guided trip around the area as Economic Development sought to influence the relocation decision of the North Jersey residents.         

The first financial report due at the Board of Elections for registered issues committees is October 8th, so the state doesn’t have any data yet.  However, the committee provided a summary of its receipts and expenditures through Sept. 27.  The “See Cecil Bus Trip” generated $8,900 in cash receipts and had expenses of $940 for the bus rental as well as $1,172.81 for the luncheon.  The profit on this, the major Friends’ fundraiser, was $6,787.19.     

Billboards average around $2,200, depending on location, so the group had other sources of revenue.  After expenses the Scheneckenberger fundraiser generated $720, a trunk raffle $180 and individual donations $1,570.  This report also shows in-kind donations for advertising of $2,110 and $1,200 for billboard.  The summary report is attached as the first filing from the Friends of Cecil County Charter is due on Oct 8, 2010, we were informed by the State Elections Board.     

But back to the question of who is bankrolling this advertising campaign.  There was no direct outlay of cash from the county.  The largest source of cash receipts ($8,900 out of total cash receipts of $11,930) came from revenue generated by conducting one of two bus tours the Department of Economic development hosted.  After expenses the group seeking to sway citizens on one of the most important political questions they will consider, how Cecil County will be governed, had profits of $6,787 to aid in influencing the outcome of the ballot question.     

Friends for Charter Financial Summary Report


Friends of Charter Web Site


29 responses to “Pro Charter Group Bankrolls Billboard Advertising Campaign by Conducting BRAC Tour

  1. You say they didn’t write a check with my tax money for them. Right. Might as well hand it over. There is not much difference. The county got money for those people. That is all there is to it. I told you that the first time I wrote. How many others got such a deal. You better look into that. You should.

    • Harvey, Did the Friends of Charter receive taxpayer dollars?

      • Frank, we’re sure you know the answer to your question to Harvey, but just to reaffirm it for clarity, there was no direct outlay of county money, despite the numerous rumors that say so. The questions took a surprise turn and now is whether a county dept. should be provide direct in-kind support to a political group that allows it to raise funds to influence an election.

    • Harvey:

      The county didn’t write checks to finance the bus tour. Someone Noticed has that directly from the county finance department. When the postings first started coming in about the county financing the signs out of the public treasury, it didn’t make sense so that’s why we held up posting some comments., But we did make phone calls about the matter to investigate and once we ruled out the direct outlay of public money, we asked other questions about the underwriting support and this is what we’ve come up with so far.

      Today, we continued sourcing this story through a range of informed contacts and have lots of questions out there. What’s interesting is that as we asked appropriate officials and talked to groups directly involved in this, such as the Friends of Charter, these & other contacts were obviously doing a lot of talking of their own. We were getting more calls with other angles or stories on this matter. Some of them may contribute to the next piece we’ll file, but we suspect a number are just like the one that was going around about the county paying for the billboards. They just don’t make sense to us or have face validity.

      During the day we asked additional questions with a number of involved county departments and individuals. In the case of the county, they were either still digging into the matter at the end of the county business day or the dept heads were out of the office and unavailable for comment.

      Whatever the case, there are a number of questions still awaiting an answer and we’ll get a news story out on those as we continue working on this piece.

  2. Yeah Frank. They sure did. Don’t those economic people work for us while they are arrange for that politics group to have the money. Yeah that is my money. For that kind of money any regular group would take them around. Rev. Mazadas homeless shelter in Earleville could us that money. Let them do it Or give it to the battered spouse center or Haven house. Anything but a political group. You don’t see that?

    • Harvey: The question is should a major county department (or minor for that matter) be supporting the fundraising efforts of a group whose sole purpose is to influence one of the most important elections, we’ll face in this county. (We’d have the same question, if the group was an anti-charter organizaiton.) There definitely was no outlay of cash, but it would be considered in-kind support on a financial report. The specifics on that and the county’s involvement in the political process are the questions we’re waiting for officials to answer. Since the county operations are shut down for the weekened, we’ll probably have to wait for Monday to get a response to our questions, or through additional interviews with dept. heads or through Freedom of Information Act Filings.

      But we think you’re right, there are plenty of non-politically affiliated nonprofits that would eagerly take on these tasks to raise revenue, especially for those amounts, if they were given the opportunity. Over the past two years, the county has eliminated almost all of the nonprofits from funding allocations so that money would be eagerly appreciated if these challenging times for small, non-politically oriented nonprofits, rather than have it go to an organization seeking to change local government.

      BTW, the county finance dept and the county administration has promptly answered our questions and there is excellent transparency as we sough info with the depts. of administration and finance.

  3. The Master Gardners could use the support from the county. How do you enroll to help?

    • Green Gardner: We’re sure this group, along with lots of other nonprofits in the county, are worthy of support. What the county’s long-term position will be on supporting and promotion other, non-poitical nonprofits will have to be determined and that’s certainly a question we’ll ask for readers. Perhaps this is a way for the county to support worthy groups with in-kind support, which could enable them to acquire funds for non-political purposes.

      The matter of providing profits for political groups is an entirely different matter and we have presently have plenty of quesions out on that, so we’ll just have to wait for a response from appropriate dept. heads and the leadership.

  4. The county administrator might be talking but what do the Cecil County Friends of Charter have to say for taking the money from a county job. That is what I want to know.

    • Curious George: Actually the Friends have been open to any questions we’ve had for them on how they paid for the billboards and about their finances thus far. As more material develops on this, there will be other questions and based on our experience, they’re providing requested information.

      The one thing that catches our attention, is why they would get involved in having a county dept. help them raise funds to influence an election. It creates another cluster of issues that detract from the goal of getting voters to approve a change in the form of government. We haven’t asked that of committee officials yet and will do so once we finish data-mining county sources.

      But let us restate the Friends have been open to answering any questions we’ve had for representatives.

  5. While I am at it and being curious I think it is curious that Vernon hasn’t said anything. What does he have to say about this thing he arranged? Bet old Vern wants charter.

    • Curious George, we see you’re being very curious. For our readers, we assume you’re asking about Vernon Thompson, the head of the Dept. of Economic Development. He’s been out of the office, but we do have calls out so hopefully we have a statement or an answer to our questions soon from the dept. head. We’ll update the story as soon as more info comes in.

  6. Mike,
    Thank you for digging into this issue for the citizens of the county. My question is why could not the county handle two buses? Seems pretty simple to me. There obviously was not a shortage of buses since the Charter Group was able to get one. The other question that comes to mind is, if the Charter group made money on their tour, how much money did the county bus tour make? Maybe we just found a new revenue stream conducting tours of Maryland! Could lower taxes be in the future?

    • Thanks Joe. In other places, this independent political reporting that digs into things just a little is something legacy media provides. It helps keep a balance in the political process as politicians and others trying to influence the politial process know the might get some ink. But in underserved markets, with newsrooms stretched far to thin by the corporate executives, there’s little time to do that.

      Our standard for this in the region is the Kent County News. They know how to dig into the deeper political stuff down there and have an editor and political repoter committed to bringing the more important stories to the public. As an example, anytime the political bodies go behind closed doors to conduct public business, it’s a headline story about the event and what they were talking about. Then if the paper feels the politicans have violated the Sunshine laws they editoralize about it and sometimes file complaints with the state.

      Here that none of that ever happens. Either our potlicians are much better or the newspapers just don’t keep an eye on such things. Given what we’ve seen it’s no one is keeping an eye on thing. We recall when the Cecil Co. Commissioners wanted to hire a lobbyist they went behind closed doors to go to Annapolis to fight the FOP contract. That should have been in full public view and we challenged the decision at the time. The Whig gave it about two sentences when the matter was two weeks old and all the blogs were all over it.
      The Town of Elkton goes behind closed doors so very often. Of course they are getting sued a lot these days. But still it is our opinion that their procedures are violating the Open Meetings Law and we brought up this matter before the board, showing them our supporting data. Still in true Elkton form they continue doing what they do. At some point, we’ll file a complaint with the board and get an official determiantion. NOthing in print about that either. Of course print reporters rarely attend Elkton meetings.
      Thus we are trying to provide a public service and keep it balanced and professional.

      It will be interesting to see how long it takes our daily newspaper to pick-up this important political story.

      Back to the current political story swirling around. You raise some interesting questions and we’re waiting for the head of Economic Defelopemnt to provide a response. As soon as we hear something we’ll update the story.

      As for your point about fundraising that’s definitely one that has a buzz around the county. We’re hearing other nonprofits say that and several have raised the question on this board. If there’s a profit stream from these tours, it would be a good way for the county to support non-political, nonprofits and allow them to make some real cash with the county providing the in-kind support. Most groups would see this as a significant fundraiser. One requirement, though, from our standpoint — absolutely no interest in shaping the political process or getting a specific politician elected.

      The entire problem with this matter, is that it takes an important political question that needs examination and mires it in a tangle of complexity related to how the initiative to change our form of government is being financed. If we were involved in governance with the Friends of Charter, we would have turned away from the offer from the Economic Development Dept. for these reasons.

      We should allow voters to be able to consider the facts of the arguments from both sides, without having to deal with how the advertising campaigns are bankrolled. There will be a detailed financial report coming out Oct. 8th, so we’ll do a fulls tory on that as soon as the report is provided.

      • Keep your eye on the ball. Delegate Smigiel has coined the term “Chartergate” to further his opposition to Charter government, which would reduce the SMIPKIN influence over Cecil County. SMIPKIN showed their contempt for the Chamber of Commerce and the voters at the recent forum where they acted like spoiled children. They should have been sent to “time out”. He has been attacking Economic Development and Vernon Thompson for years, as he does to all he views as a threat to his political power. He finds fault with funding of Friends of Charter, demanding full disclosure, while defending his failure to file his own campaign finance reports as “the moral equivalent of a parking ticket”.

  7. Yabba Dabba Doo Howard
    Here we go. That’s right. Get the comments off topic. Don’t want to deal with the news about a favored county department fundraising for the Friends of Charter, now do we Howard. Wonder why that is?
    Howard, what’s your opinion on the news report this blog brought up. I see how you go off on the other posts elsewhere. But you don’t have an opinion on this! Always a good political tactic when there is no defense. Come on now Howard share those opinions you share so freely.
    What do you say on the initial subject Howard?

    Yabba Dabba Doo, here we go with another favored tactic of Cecil County politicians. Confuse them and don’t deal with the real questions.

    • The real issue is that Enemies of Charter won’t come out and present a cogent defense of the current form of government. Concerned Citizen Smigiel should stand up in a public forum and present his well researched, factually flawed opinions.

  8. Let me say. I don’t think the county should be funding any of them especially political ones. They did the right thing finally cutting almost all the nonprofits out but now they hand it to poitical groups. Worse. Since that is what they are going to do how about they change and start giving that money to the ones that aren’t political. Don’t like it, but if that is what they are going to do its better than picking favorite politics one.

    • What is your opinion on Charter vs. Commissioner forms of government?

    • Taxpayer
      Just to clarify, Cecil County Govt didn’t take any public money and hand it over to the Friends of Charter. That’s clear after talking to the the county finance officer, economic development and the Friends of Charter, despite the rumors that swirrled around the county and caused this story to develop. We’re very confident with that.
      The question concerns support and we guess one could argue that it’s in-kind support that needs to be reported on the financial report to the state. But we suspect the lawyers will argue about that.

      Beyond that the question rests on the point of whether a department should be connected with a political groups fundraising. There will be a lot of complexity to this question as it evolves, but that’s the core of it.

      We’ve asked for statements to better clarify the county’s intent with this and we’ll have to wait on that to comment more. But we suspect this is more in the range of an an unintentonal error in judgement, rather than some plot to get charter approved and fund a political advocacy campaign. We were told by a couple of sources that the Friends tour guide had been volunteering and going with the county to conduct the other tours. Thus since the guide was acquainted with the process so we able to step forward a lead a second bus. We can’t help but believe that this is the case (a decision not though throughly through), but rather than have us speak for the Friends or the county, we’ll have to wait for a statement and/or a response to our follow-up questions.

      As for your point about, fundraising for other nonprofits. We think you’re right. There are plenty of qualified groups in the county that would jump at the opportunity to help and make that kind of money. It would be a good way for the commissioners to help the nonprofits since they cut most of organizations out of the budget. Plus it wouldn’t be public money that they’d be handing over. But again, that’s jumping ahead as we wait for more clarity through statements and follow-up questions since suspect this really isn’t reflective of the way the board wants things done at the commissioner level.

  9. I’m not worried about Simpkins, Howard. They make whatever arguments Simpkins tend to make. Something they are good at — making the message audible. When they get to it in Smipkin time I will sort through what they say because the decibels will be loud enough that I will hear it. Once it’s out there, I’m capable of sorting through arguments to figure out what seems logical and right. I’m worried about backroom deals, things that aren’t supposed to be out front. Take those Friends of Charter. They have Friends in high positions in county government. Those other friends arrange an unbelievable deal for the other Friends so they have major bucks to influence opinion. That wasn’t supposed to come out in public now was it Howard. How do you want me to assess backroom deals, Howard. Got to ask what else we don’t know about Howard. Just sayin’ Howard. That’s all.
    If I was a Friends of Charter, I would have said no to the help the county friends offered just the reason you reference Howard. It stops them for being able to argue the strengths of charter and causes more suspicion as the circle of talkers share the word.
    Talking about having things to say. The teaparty, which usually has lots to say is remarkable quiet on this latest bit of political theatre. What’s up with that?

    (remarks removed by Someone Noticed — appears to have been a cut and paste duplication)

    • Dear Fred…How about a debate on the ISSUE of Charter v Commissioner forms of government. It could be held at Cecil College. Since Delegate Smigiel has strong opinions on the issue he could present his views on the matter. As an attorney he is in a position to evaluate and assess the virtues, as well as the flaws of Charter and Commissioner forms of government. Friends of Charter could present their views. It could be live streamed so that all interested parties could watch at home if unable to attend the live presentation. Copies could be made and mailed/e-mailed to all who request a copy.

      • Smigiel won’t participate in a debate because his interest in maintaining the status quo might emerge. It is easier for the SMIPKIN (Smigiel and Pipkin) to control Cecil County. One of his complaints is that the County Seal is used on the Friends of Charter bill boards and ads. Seems hypocrtical since the SMIPKIN “Fiscal Conservative Team” used a Maryland State Legislative Seal as a background for one of their political flyers. Enemies of Charter should accept the challenge to debate.

  10. Yeah right? This blog says that volunteer from the Friends was able to do that tour because she volunteered to do the others tours for the county. If that is true how come this blogger man didn’t ask the next quetion. If that volunteer is so good at that volutneering how comes she couldn’t volunteer when it came time to raise money for this political campaign and the county needed two tour guides. How come? Volunteering was allright until then. . That is what I want to know. Seems to obvious. LIke that other person said follow the money. Tou better start askinig better questions are you going to get just like that Cecil Whig. That what I say about it.

  11. Beware of Charter Government for Cecil County! This referendum has failed five times already for good reason. It’s bigger government, more expensive and gives too much power to a County Executive. The Commissioners held forums across the county 3 years ago on alternative forms of government (which cost the tax payers $10,000) and the citizen’s vote was disregarded. They overwhelmingly chose Code Home Rule and this option is not available on the General Election Ballot. This form of government provides the most local authority available, the cost would remain almost the same as our current commissioner form and we wouldn‘t be at the mercy of a County Executive or State Delegation. The Maryland Constitution provides a code county the power to enact, amend, or repeal laws applicable to it’s incorporation, organization or government. Quoting from Home Rule Options in Maryland, “The Maryland Attorney General construed this to mean that a code county is authorized to control most affairs that have local effect and significance.” “Code Counties alone are empowered to fix and collect development impact fees for financing improvements required to accommodate new construction and development. They also may impose a development excise tax to help finance capital costs for expanded school facilities or for purchasing development rights on agricultural land. “ My questions is, “Why wouldn’t the county commissioners support Code Home Rule?” Follow the money.

    • Wake up. Code Home Rule is not on the ballot. The “citizen’s vote” you reference was a straw vote written on slips of paper following each forum. Attendance at the forums was low (a maximum of 30 at the ones I attended).

  12. They sure are fretting about what those Simpkins will do. But they aren’t concerned about the county’s involvement in funding a PAC. [Editor’s Note — sentence removed] How about that!

  13. I am still waiting for the questions poised by Mike Dixon. How long does it take our Economic Development to answer a few simple questions? Maybe they are still determining how much the county made on their bus trip. I still think we have a potential revenue stream here. To be continued……

  14. Jacque Broomell

    In my reading online about Charter Government I stumbled upon this:

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