Ehrlich taps a Democrat to lead juvenile justice

House veteran Montague to take on troubled agency

January 08, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich reached across party lines yesterday and picked Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr. to be secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, turning to a longtime legislative colleague to take on one of the state's most troubled agencies.

Ehrlich's latest nominee -- a lawyer and Baltimore native who lost his General Assembly seat in the fall primary -- won praise from political leaders and children's advocates throughout the state. Montague has long been a champion of issues concerning children in his community and in the legislature, and he is the Republican administration's first Democratic Cabinet nomination.

By choosing Montague, Ehrlich took another step toward fulfilling a campaign pledge that he would build an inclusive administration. Montague is the second African-American named to Ehrlich's cabinet.

"This is a great day for me personally," Ehrlich said at a morning news conference at the historic Stanton Center, the site of a school for African-Americans in the early 1900s. Montague is "by far the best person in the state of Maryland for the job," he said.

The juvenile justice department, which Ehrlich intends to rename the Department of Juvenile Services, has been rife with troubles. Among the most severe problems were regular beatings of inmates by guards at the department's juvenile boot camps.

The boot camps were shut, and the state had to pay $4.6 million to settle a lawsuit on behalf of young offenders.

Ehrlich said he intends to make juvenile justice reform a hallmark of his administration, and Montague will be responsible for overseeing the operation. Montague was the sponsor of legislation last year creating an independent monitor to oversee programs for youthful offenders and watch for abuses.

"I think that was a wonderful appointment," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, whose legislative body must confirm Cabinet-level appointments. "Ken Montague is a thoughtful, considerate human being. If every appointment were like that, there would not be one single dissenting vote among the Democrats."

The appointment even won praise from Ehrlich's opponent in November's gubernatorial election -- Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. She made her first public appearance in two months yesterday at an annual Democratic luncheon.

"I think Ken's a terrific selection," said Townsend, who in an interview offered little insight into her future plans. "He's cared about those issues for a long time."

Townsend oversaw juvenile justice during the Glendening administration. She was widely criticized for the problems at the boot camps, which she encouraged as a tool to rehabilitate troubled youths until the abuse by guards came to light.

Throughout the campaign, Ehrlich blamed Townsend for not adequately managing the operation. He said he plans to reform juvenile programs to provide services for youths that will help them turn their lives around before they become involved in serious crimes.

"To the extent that you can save kids ... you should do it," Ehrlich said.

He said he believes Montague is the man for the job.

Montague, 60, earned his bachelor's degree in English literature from Morgan State College in 1967 and a law degree from the University of Maryland in 1977. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1987 and served on the Judiciary Committee throughout his tenure.

In September, Montague suffered a surprising defeat in the primary election.

Although his race was one of the city's most hotly contested, many believed that Montague would win one of the three seats in the 43rd District in Northeast Baltimore.

With the nomination to the juvenile justice post, Montague appears to have landed a spot of greater prominence in state affairs.

He said he does not intend to change his party affiliation.

"This is a difficult job to do," Montague said. "Some have said that I cannot win. But that is not what this is about. It's about making sure those children have a fair opportunity to win."

Heather Ford, director of the Maryland Coalition for Juvenile Justice, said Montague's view of responding to the needs of children is the kind of leadership the department needs.

"We're very encouraged about his appointment," Ford said. "I don't think anyone was going to object to his appointment."

Montague joins four other Cabinet members announced so far: former Baltimore police Commissioner Edward T. Norris to head the state police; longtime congressional aide R. Karl Aumann to serve as secretary of state; former Prince George's County Councilwoman Audrey E. Scott as secretary of planning; and U.S. Department of General Services associate administrator Boyd K. Rutherford as secretary of the state Department of General Services.

Ehrlich said he plans to announce additional appointments tomorrow and Friday, and have his full Cabinet in place by his inauguration Jan. 15.

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