Weaknesses in Anne Arundel County’s charter led to the current stalemate in selecting a successor to the District 1 council seat, a local political expert said.
The charter could be amended to fix those weaknesses, bringing it closer to the rules in nearby municipalities—including Baltimore County and Annapolis—but the earliest a change could take effect is Dec. 6, 30 days after the next general election.
Since former District 1 Councilman Daryl Jones went to federal prison Jan. 23, the council has bickered about who will fill his seat. The six remaining councilmen interviewed 10 candidates in February, narrowed them down to three, then two, then with a 3-3 split before calling it a night. They met twice more in the next few weeks, but still haven’t come to an agreement.
The only method of succession in the county’s charter for filling a vacant council seat is a roll-call vote from the remaining council members within 30 days of it becoming vacant. But what happens if they can’t come to any agreement in the next few months?
“The charter is silent on that,” County Attorney Amy Tate said.
The county’s Charter Revision Commission convenes each decade to review the rules governing the county and take feedback from residents on how to amend and improve the document. One of the proposals on the table is “to evaluate alternative processes for filling vacancies on the County Council.” Any proposals from the commission must be approved by the council, then by voters in a general election referendum.
The hole in the county’s charter is that it asks the seven-person council to choose successors for any vacant seats, said political science professor Dan Nataf, who follows local politics. In addition to setting themselves up for a tie with a six-person vote, it opens the door to political maneuvers that don’t benefit voters, Nataf said.
The last time the council was put in this position was in 2009 when it was choosing the successor to then-District 6 Councilman Josh Cohen, who was vacating his council seat to become Annapolis mayor. The council appointed Democrat Chuck Ferrar in December 2009. Ferrar was challenged in the September 2010 primary by , who won by a narrow margin. Trumbauer went on to defeat Republican Doug Burkhardt in the November 2010 general election, and now holds the seat.
“This is the fallacy of allowing the County Council to make the replacement. They screwed up the last time, and they’re screwing up again. Because they don’t want to do the thing which is obvious—you pick someone like the person who was elected,” Nataf said.
Between the two candidates for the vacant seat—, a younger black man, and , an older white man—Nataf said Smith was the obvious choice to replace Jones, a black Democrat.
“You’re trying to anticipate and reproduce the results of an election. That’s the goal,” he said. “In the case of [Cohen], they picked someone who really wasn’t like him at all, and their pick ended up losing the seat to someone who was more like him.”
Nataf said it would simplify the process, and remove the politics of succession, if the county’s charter allowed the leaders of the political party associated with the former councilman to make the choice for appointment, then have the county executive ratify that decision. Under such a rule, a candidate would have been recommended by the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee.
That’s how Annapolis and Baltimore County’s charters handle vacancies, and it seems to have worked well for them. Baltimore County Attorney Michael E. Field said he could not recall anything like the current stalemate in Anne Arundel County in his 15 years overseeing Baltimore County's council.
Other nearby municipalities have different ways of handling vacancies. Prince George’s County requires a special election to be held, and Baltimore City creates a nominating committee of people in the district to select the candidates, which are then voted on by the City Council.
If Anne Arundel County's Charter Revision Commission recommended a change, it must be approved by at least five members of the council, and then be put to a vote in a general election before the change can be implemented. The change would become effective 30 days later.
For Anne Arundel County, that means the earliest a charter amendment could take effect would be Dec. 6.
Here’s a look at how the charters in some of the other jurisdictions in the region are set up to handle council vacancies:
• City of Annapolis
For vacancies with less than 15 months until the next election, the selection committee for the party of the person creating the vacancy fills the seat. A series of dates and deadlines are laid out in detail, culminating with the council swearing in the selection committee’s recommendation. If the person was not registered with a party at the time they were elected, the City Council is to follow the same rules as “closely as possible.”
• Baltimore County
The state central committee representing the party of the previously elected council member picks a replacement. The county executive must make the appointment within 30 days. If the person being replaced wasn’t affiliated with a party at the time of election, the county executive appoints someone selected by the council.
• Baltimore City
The president of the City Council appoints a nominating committee made up mostly of people in the district with the vacant seat. The charter maps out the makeup of the committee, including members from neighborhood associations and the business community. The committee has 30 days to make a recommendation to the council, based on a simple majority vote. If the council rejects the recommendation, the committee must “promptly reconvene for further deliberations” and return with another name by the next council meeting.
• Prince George’s County
The county council is responsible for holding a special election if the vacancy occurs during the first three years of a term. When it’s in the last year of a term, a majority of the remaining members of the council shall appoint a qualified person to fill the vacancy.