Maryland Supreme Court clears way for teacher to serve on Harford County Council
Jacob Bennett was sworn onto the Harford County Council in December. Next Tuesday, he’ll attend his first meeting in several weeks after a judge ruled in February that his teaching job made him ineligible to serve.
Bennett, a Democrat who teaches middle school science in Harford County, got an unexpected civics lesson this year. First, running for office and later being locked out by a newly sworn-in county executive. Then a court case that landed in the Supreme Court of Maryland.
A ruling by the state’s highest court on Wednesday now allows him to return to serving a council district that has been without council representation since February.
“That’s time that can’t be brought back,” said Bennett, who vowed to quickly resume his council duties.
Bennett said he heard from Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly, who sought to disqualify him and physically locked him out of his council office. The first-term executive promised to quickly get the councilman on the county payroll, Bennett said.
In a statement, Cassilly signaled he was prepared to move on.
“I respect the court’s decision in this matter and look forward to working with Councilman Bennett to fulfill the duties of his office,” Cassilly said in a statement issued after the ruling.
Bennett said he is willing to set the conflict with Cassilly aside.
“If he’s willing to move on, I’m willing to move on,” he said.
Bennett’s return to the council comes just as the council nears a vote on a bill imposing a six-month moratorium on warehouse construction. The temporary ban is a stopgap effort to block construction of 2 million square feet of warehouse space along the Perryman Peninsula near Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
Bennett said without him “it would be one less yes vote for the moratorium.”
The four-page Supreme Court decision released Wednesday overturns a Harford County Circuit Court judge’s earlier decision and orders him to enter a judgment that will allow Bennett to return to the council. It also allows him to keep his teaching job in the Harford County Public Schools system.
Bennett was barred from performing his duties as a councilman as the result of a decision in February by Harford County Circuit Court Judge Richard S. Bernhardt, Sr.
Attorneys representing the county argued that Bennett was ineligible to serve because his teaching position violates a charter position that prohibits councilmembers from holding “any other office of profit or employment in the government of the State of Maryland, Harford County, or any municipality within Harford County.”
In an order issued one day after an expedited hearing, the Maryland Supreme Court ruled that “neither Section 207 of the Harford County Charter nor the doctrine of incompatible positions precludes Mr. Bennett from serving as a member of the Harford County Council while simultaneously being employed as a teacher by the Harford County Board of Education.”
The order does not explain why the charter provision doesn’t apply. That is expected in an opinion that will be issued by the court in the future.
Bennett defeated Republican incumbent Curtis Beulah in November by less than 100 votes. He is the second Democrat on the seven-member council.
Following his election, incoming Republican County Executive Bob Cassilly moved to exclude Bennett from inaugural ceremonies.
Bennett was ultimately sworn in during a separate ceremony at the Harford County Courthouse.
Following the February Circuit Court decision, Cassilly ordered the locks on Bennett’s office be changed and cut off access to his government email account.
Bennett sought and received an expedited hearing from the Supreme Court of Maryland in an effort to resolve the issue before a 60-day time limit required the county Democratic Central Committee to appoint a replacement.
Some on the committee wanted to replace Bennett in order to prevent the seat from remaining vacant during a protracted legal battle.
Bennett acknowledged some in the community may initially have hard feelings of his refusal to step aside.
“I’m going to do a lot of work to repair those relationships,” he said.
The ruling has the potential to affect other counties in Maryland.
Five counties — Anne Arundel, Baltimore County, Howard, Montgomery and Wicomico — have similar restrictions in their county charters.
Dorchester County prohibits a councilmember from working for any agency receiving county funds but allows employment in a municipality.
Talbot County prohibits members from employment at the county, state or federal level.
In 2007, the Baltimore County Council attempted to remove the provision barring state employment by passing a charter amendment.
The seven-member council, at the time, believed the prohibition was antiquated, according to a report by a commission charged with reviewing the Baltimore County Charter.
But voters in 2008 disagreed with the council and rejected the proposed change at the ballot box.
Wednesday’s order remands Bennett’s case to the lower court for a declaratory judgment allowing him to serve while holding his teaching position. The lower court was also instructed to enforce the order, if necessary. Harford County was ordered to pay the costs of the case.
The order means Bennett will soon receive his first paycheck as a councilmember — a job that pays about $48,000 annually. He’s promised to donate half to community groups including local recreational sports leagues, volunteer fire companies and other groups.
This breaking news story was updated April 5 at 8 p.m.