Harford County files suit against County Council member Jacob Bennett

Dec. 13—Harford County on Friday sued District F County Council member Jacob Bennett, seeking to disqualify him from serving on the council.

Filing suit in Harford County Circuit Court, County Attorney Jefferson L. Blomquist said Bennett cannot hold office because he's employed as a teacher by Harford County Public Schools. A provision of the county charter states that a "council member 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."

Harford County Executive Bob Cassilly said that that disqualifies Bennett from being able to remain a public school teacher and serve on the council. Cassilly's spokesman, Sam Kahl, said Tuesday in a statement that, "Upholding the County Charter is not a personal or political action. It is a legal and ethical obligation of the county executive."

"Our only motivation here on this side of the street is to do the right thing, according to the charter," Cassilly told The Aegis last week.

Bennett denies that he is either a county or state employee, and vows to fight the effort to remove him from the office to which voters elected him. He said his attorney will respond after being served the suit.

"I'll be there Tuesday unless told otherwise," Bennett said of the next council meeting. "Our plan is to continue to serve in office."

Bennett said there are other teachers serving in local office, including Lisa D. B. Rodvien, an Anne Arundel County commissioner. The charter there similarly states, "No person shall qualify or serve as a member of the County Council while holding any other office, position, or employment for compensation or profit of or under the County government, or any State or Federal government office."

Bennett also points to Baltimore County Council member David Marks, who is a special education teacher in Harford County. The Baltimore County charter also bans from the council someone "while he holds any other office or employment for profit of or under the state or county."

The suit notes that as a teacher, Bennett is paid by the county Board of Education and is a member of the state retirement system. It says that the education board is part of the state government, and receives hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the county, and whose budget the county council approves, denies and/or reduces in part.

Lawyers for Maryland State Education Association and Harford County Public Schools have said there is no conflict of interest preventing Bennett from serving on the council.

The Morning Sun

Bennett's lawyer, Joe Sandler, said earlier that HCPS is a separate legal entity from either the state or county government and that Bennett's paycheck comes from HCPS — not Harford County or the State of Maryland. HCPS teachers' salaries are negotiated between the Harford County Board of Education and the teachers' union. They are not set by the County Council.

In the suit, the county asks the court to declare that Bennett is ineligible to remain on the council while working as an HCPS teacher.

The suit incorrectly stated that Bennett is a kindergarten teacher at Havre de Grace Elementary School. While he held that position for six years, Bennett transferred schools this year to teach middle school science.

At Bennett's first council meeting on Dec. 6, a closed session was held among the other six council members to obtain legal advice regarding the question of whether Bennett could hold both positions.

Bennett said he believes part of the reason he has been targeted is that he is a political outsider who ousted a Republican incumbent, Curtis Beulah.

"Here comes a 27-year-old schoolteacher ... with no political background, and we won," Bennett said. "I definitely think that's a piece of it," he said.

"I'm a Democrat who beat an incumbent."