Judge rules that Harford County council member cannot hold office unless he resigns job as county school teacher

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A Harford County teacher will appeal a judge’s ruling that he can no longer serve on the County Council unless he resigns from his position as a middle school science teacher.

In a judgment entered Wednesday, Harford County Circuit Court Judge Richard S. Bernhardt, Sr. said Jacob Bennett (D) can no longer serve on the county council while he remains employed by the Harford County Public Schools.

The judge also ruled that Bennett was barred from “performing any and all functions” as a council member until he “cures” his lack of qualification by terminating his employment with the school system.

In an interview, Bennett said he does not intend to resign from his job and will be appealing the judge’s decision.

Jacob D. Bennett, right, stands beside his wife, Abigail, during a swearing-in ceremony Dec. 5 at the Harford County Courthouse. Photo by William J. Ford.

He said the locks to his office were changed and access to his council email was cut off within minutes of the judge’s decision on Wednesday.

The office of Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly (R) said the judge’s decision made clear that Bennett was “never qualified to serve.”

“I took an oath to uphold the Harford County Charter, which clearly states that a Council member may not also be employed as a teacher for Harford County Public Schools,” Cassilly said in a statement. “Today’s ruling affirms this fact. This case was never about Mr. Bennett personally, it was about upholding the law.”

The county executive’s relationship with Bennett has been adversarial since the November election.

In December, Bennett’s name was not included in an inauguration program and he was not invited to take part in the official county ceremony, being sworn in instead at the county courthouse later in the day.

Since the election, Bennett has not been paid a council salary nor has he been given the same supplies and resources as other council members. He also has not been permitted to interview nominees for county Cabinet positions subject to County Council confirmation.

Bennett defeated incumbent Curtis Beulah (R) by 92 votes. Including Bennett, Republicans have a 5-2 advantage on the County Council.

Harford County Attorney Jefferson Blomquist has argued that Bennett cannot serve as a council member because of a charter provision that states council members “shall not hold any other office of profit or employment in the government of the State of Maryland, Harford County, or any municipality within Harford County.”

When Bennett pressed his case in court, Blomquist wrote that he was attempting “amendment of the Charter by judicial fiat in a manner that destroys the separation of powers.”

But Bennett rejects the executive branch’s characterization of his employment. He said that while the county’s budget provides funding for the Board of Education, it’s a separate entity.

Bennett said in December that he conferred with the state Attorney General’s Office “who assured us we have every right to be sworn-in and no one can stop us from that.”

He also notes that teachers have served on county councils throughout the state. He listed several examples in a Facebook post:

  • Paul Clayton Edwards, a member of the Garrett County Board of Commissioners and an educator in Garrett County Public Schools.
  • Lisa Rodvien, a member of the Anne Arundel County Council and an educator in Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
  • Jerry Donald, a member of the Frederick County Council and an educator with Frederick County Public Schools.
  • David Marks is a member of the Baltimore County Council (on which state employees are not permitted by charter to serve) and is an educator with Howard County Public Schools.
  • Dennis Frazier served for 8 years on the Carroll County Board of Commissioners while being an educator with Carroll County Public Schools.

“This is an extreme ruling and will have a huge statewide ripple effect,” Bennett said, adding that he’s confident he can prevail in an appeal.

“I think the public at large has an interest in me serving — they knew I was a school teacher when they elected me,” he said.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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