Circuit Court clerk won't be appointed Judges say voters can decide next year

November 28, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Hoping to avoid a political brouhaha, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said the court won't fill the court clerk's position, which was left vacant by the death of Saundra E. Banks three months ago.

Instead, Kaplan, the court's administrative judge, said circuit judges plan to let the voters select the new clerk of the court in next year's election.

"The chief deputy has been given the task of continuing to run the office until the next general election," Kaplan said. "It would have been politicized if we had selected somebody, but we tried to avoid that and keep the operation going."

The court's decision not to fill the post appears to be raising the ire of some black politicians who want an African-American in the $64,000-a-year job. They say that by not filling the position, the judges are depriving someone -- ideally an African-American -- from earning the salary.

The reasons the judges won't fill the post, these politicians claim, is that they didn't plan to pick an African-American for the job, which could upset black voters. Out of frustration with the court, the politicians say, voters might reject some or all of the nine sitting judges, who are up for re-election next year, because they didn't like the court's choice for an interim clerk.

"It's appalling. Someone should be drawing that money," said former state Del. Kenneth L. Webster, the leader of an ad-hoc group seeking to have a black candidate elected to the clerk's TTC position. "They didn't respect the African-American community enough to fill the position.

"I think the reason why [the judges are] doing this is that they're not going to put an African-American in the position," Webster said.

Added former state Del. Frank M. Conaway, who applied for the job and is on Webster's committee: "Frankly, I'm upset about it. Judges don't always make the right decision, but they usually make a decision."

Kaplan called those arguments "ridiculous" and said he wonders "where these people get this kind of stuff from."

The judge said he believes the real issue is that Webster's committee, which includes at least two people who applied for the position, is angry that the court isn't giving any of its members an advantage in the election by appointing them to the clerk job now.

"They think we should have given somebody a leg up," Kaplan said.

In addition to Conaway, whose wife is the registrar of wills, the Rev. Pinkney McCready, who runs the court's personnel office and is a member of Webster's committee, applied for the position. Other applicants include Arthur Murphy, a political consultant to the judges up for re-election, and Charles Mackey, who works in the land records division of the clerk's office -- both of whom are black.

Kaplan said the court usually names the chief deputy of a department to a vacant post as it did when Kurt L. Schmoke was elected mayor in 1987. He left the city state's attorney position vacant, and the judges named his deputy, Stuart O. Simms, the city's top prosecutor.

Kaplan said the court named State's Attorney Patricia M. Jessamy the city's top prosecutor when her predecessor, Simms, was named state secretary, of juvenile justice. Both are African-American.

But in the case of the clerk of the court, the chief deputy, Patricia M. Bertorelli, didn't want to be clerk. Bertorelli has, however, been performing the clerk's duty since Banks became ill.

When Banks died Aug. 17, it appeared that the judges were intending to nominate someone to replace her permanently, but they changed their minds and decided to leave the post vacant.

Kaplan says it's better that way. The court is setting up a civil case management system that requires the knowledge of the operation that Bertorelli has, he said.

If the judges appointed someone to the position, Kaplan said, they would be concerned that the person wouldn't focus on the responsibilities of the job but would spend most of the time campaigning for the election.

"The concern was the disruption of the system," Kaplan said. "We need a steady hand on that office."

Webster and Conaway said it would not have mattered who the judges had appointed to the position as long as they appointed someone. But by leaving the position vacant, they say, the court is shirking its responsibility.

They said it wouldn't have been disruptive to put someone in the position and the judges' decision itself politicized the issue.

"It's all a game of politics," Webster said.

Pub Date: 11/28/97

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