New attorney retained, budget presentations heard, taxes raised, ethical violations aired
CAMBRIDGE — It was a busy night Monday for the Cambridge City Council.
In closed session, the council voted to hire a new city attorney. The council voted to raise property taxes to maintain constant yield.
Because it’s budgeting season, city leaders made budget presentations. Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley read findings from the Maryland Open Meetings Act Compliance Board that the council violated three sections of the act during a Feb. 21 closed session. Also, at the end of the meeting, Commissioner Donald Sydnor at first voted no, then changed his vote to yes, on a pressing decision involving the city marina.
In closed session, the council voted 5-0 to retain the services of the MacLeod Law Group for four months of routine services to the city at a rate of $8,333 per month. This follows the council’s decision to terminate Robert Collison, who served as city attorney for more than 20 years.
“During that time, the firm and the city will track the activity and costs, and then consider a long-term retainer for either that rate or an adjusted rate,” City Manager Sandra Tripp-Jones said of the four-month retainer after entering open session.
Later in the meeting, Mayor Jackson-Stanley read the findings from the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board that relate to Mr. Collison’s termination which was discussed in a February closed session.
The council also considered Ordinance No. 1097 to maintain a constant yield in property taxes effective July 1.
“With the reassessments that were done, basically by the state, the overall property tax value in the City of Cambridge dropped by about 2 percent,” City Manager Tripp-Jones said. “The equivalent of that in property tax revenue is $130,000.”
Ordinance No. 1097 raises the property tax rate from $.007989 to $.008179 to make up for the difference. During the public hearing, a small number of citizens asked that the council not raise taxes, including Jeff Hubbard, president of the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce and past president of the Rotary Club of Cambridge.
“I know you guys are trying to get a constant yield, but this is certainly a tax increase,” Mr. Hubbard said. “One of the biggest reasons people don’t move to Cambridge is they say the taxes are too high. So, us going on record with a tax increase now kind of puts down this little bit of uptick we have in home sales around town. Just this last week, the City of Salisbury announced a tax reduction.”
Commissioner La-Shon Foster explained that for a house valued at $200,000, taxes would only rise by $40. That’s assuming the assessment stayed the same. In some cases, City Manager Tripp-Jones said, tax payments will still go down despite the increased rate because of a decreased valuation. The council voted 4-1 to adopt the ordinance.
The council is working on the Fiscal Year 2018 budget which will take effect July 1, and heard budget presentations and updates from city administrators and department heads. Ginger Heatwole, city finance director; Brandon Hesson, associate director of economic development for the city; Mark K. Lewis, interim police chief; and Fire Chief Brian Willey all made presentations.
“In doing these presentations, we really like to take the opportunity to focus on the fact that the budget really is a plan of services, it’s not just a numbers exercise,” City Manager Tripp-Jones said. “There is a great deal of service in this city. This is a full service city with a full compliment of police, fire, public works, planning and normal types of administrative activities.”
Presentations from public works, and the water and sewer department are yet to come. The Powerpoint files that coincided with the presentations are available on the city website.
On Feb. 22, Commissioner Stephen W. Rideout filed an official complaint with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board. This followed the Feb. 21 closed session concerning the termination of Mr. Collison, the former city attorney.
“The purpose of this memo is to file a complaint against the Mayor and the Cambridge City Council, of which I am a member, regarding what I believe are violations of Chapter 5 of the Maryland Open Meetings Act,” Mr. Rideout’s complaint states. “... (T)he city continues a practice about which I have complained since being elected to City Council in July 2016 as it did not announce an open meeting to make a determination as to closing a meeting as required by the Open Meetings Act but rather simply announced a closed meeting.”
The compliance board released its official findings April 13. The findings state that the mayor and council violated three subsections of the act which required the council to hold the vote to close session in public, and to provide the public with advance notice of its right to attend; to adopt a closing statement including the topic discussed, the reason for closing the session, and a citation of authority for the closed session; and the council discussed a topic other than the one that it had disclosed.
As part of the procedure concerning the violations, Mayor Jackson-Stanley read the findings aloud in their entirety. The mayor signed a copy of the opinion and forwarded it to the compliance board.
At the end of the meeting, Oden Wheeler, director of the Department of Public Works, raised an issue that needed immediate attention from the council. This led to a heated discussion. The state recently changed its standards for dispensing gasoline at marinas. The changes affect the Cambridge Marina. If the Cambridge Marina does not comply quickly, at a cost of roughly $35,000, it will have to stop selling gas. Mr. Wheeler suggested using $35,000 from a $50,000 grant, meant for another purpose, while seeking additional grant funding.
“We need to get this done as soon as possible,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We won’t be able to pump fuel if we don’t fix this.”
Commissioner Rideout moved to re-appropriate the funds for the fix.
Commissioner Sydnor questioned the shift in spending. He asked a number of times if the decision could be delayed to the next meeting of the council, May 8. Mr. Sydnor said the marina already creates a deficit in the budget.
“We might not get the grant and then have an even greater deficit at the marina by not being able to sell gas,” Mr. Rideout said.
“Yeah, you’ll say that because that’s your ward,” Mr. Sydnor said.
City Manager Tripp-Jones said she already proposed a May 8 work session to match grant opportunities to projects.
“Can this be taken up at this particular time,” Mr. Sydnor asked. Mr. Wheeler said waiting would likely result in closing the pumps at the marina.
By this time in the meeting, Commissioner La-Shon Foster had left because of a schedule conflict, leaving four commissioners available to vote on the matter. A budget amendment requires four yes votes to pass.
“I have possibly more questions, but I’m not prepared to vote on it tonight,” Mr. Sydnor said. “But if you want to vote, and vote it down, we can do that.”
Initially, the amendment did not pass because of a 3-1 vote with Commissioner Sydnor voting no. However, moments later, Mr. Sydnor asked to rescind his vote and changed it to yes, allowing the amendment to pass.