Council weighs secret ballots

Members ponder how best to fill vacancies on county board

People `deserve to know'

March 22, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The grim circumstances might not recur for years, if ever, but County Council members are already trying to reach agreement on how to fill vacancies if a colleague unexpectedly leaves office or dies.

Councilwoman Shirley Murphy said she is working on a "comprehensive" bill that would address criticism heaped on the council for using a secret ballot to fill a council vacancy last month.

Cathleen M. Vitale was chosen to succeed Cliff Roop, who suffered a fatal heart attack during the Jan. 3 council meeting.

Murphy's comments came Monday night, moments before the council shot down Councilman Bill D. Burlison's resolution calling for open voting. Only Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle sided with him.

One reason given for the secrecy of last month's vote was the awkwardness Vitale might have felt working with colleagues she knew had not supported her. But Burlison said members should have to identify their choice, as they do when voting on legislation.

"We sorely need the trust of the public," he said at Monday's council meeting.

Murphy and other members said their opposition to the open-ballot resolution was procedural, not philosophical. When Murphy's bill reaches the council, probably this year, it might resemble Burlison's proposal.

"There's just a lot of thought still going on by council members, and what's the best way to do it," said council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr. "It's not that we were opposed to his resolution. Some of us thought there are other ways to do it."

Among the ideas he said Murphy might propose is to use a secret ballot to winnow the field of council applicants. At that point, members would vote orally until one candidate had the necessary four votes.

When the council picked Vitale from a field of 12 candidates, all three rounds of voting were secret, meaning the public never knew how individual council members voted.

Considering options

Klosterman said another possibility would be to let the political party of the departed council member nominate a successor, while still allowing members of the public to apply for the post.

Murphy originally proposed leaving the decision entirely to the departed member's political party. But that idea lacked broad support on the council; Klosterman said it would needlessly "politicize" the process.

Beidle said she initially approved of holding a secret ballot, knowing she would have to work with the winner for the next three years. But before the vote, a number of constituents urged her to support a more open process. The outcry changed her mind, she said.

"This isn't like my going into the polling booth and voting for myself," she said yesterday. "That's a private vote. When you're voting to represent people who elected you, they deserve to know how you vote."

Rare occurrence

The council has rarely had to replace a member. Before Roop, only one other member had died in office since charter government began in 1966, Wallace "Chunky" Childs, who died in 1984.

But, Beidle recalled, she and three other council members had a scary encounter recently on Interstate 97 that could have taken a dangerous turn. They were heading north when the driver of a sport utility vehicle began tailgating the car driven by Klosterman. Before Klosterman could move to the right lane, the SUV passed him on the narrow left shoulder.

"You don't know what the odds are," Beidle said.

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