Removal of GOP official is barred

Injunction temporarily stops ouster from central committee

Judge to hear arguments next month

Burns was appointed in 2002, elected, then voted out in July

Carroll County

September 23, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Carroll County Republican Central Committee cannot replace a member it removed in July until the court decides whether the ouster was legal, Circuit Judge Michael M. Galloway ruled yesterday.

The ruling means that Joseph F. Burns Jr. is still a member of the committee with full rights and privileges. He can attend meetings and participate in decisions, according to the temporary injunction issued against the committee, which traditionally has nine members elected by county Republicans.

"The injunction prohibits the committee from removing or replacing him," said Michelle M. Ostrander, Burns' attorney. "Our argument is that there was one way to do this and one set of grounds, and those were not met."

Galloway had scheduled a hearing on the complaint yesterday but postponed the proceedings so the committee members could seek new counsel. Galloway extended the injunction to Oct. 12, when he will hear arguments from Ostrander and an attorney the committee has yet to hire.

V. Lanny Harchenhorn, who serves as general counsel to the committee, represented Chairwoman Michelle Jefferson yesterday but excused himself from further proceedings. He could be called to testify at the hearing because he witnessed the committee's actions leading to Burns' removal.

"I was present when everything took place and am a potential material witness," Harchenhorn said yesterday.

For nearly three hours yesterday, Harchenhorn and Ostrander argued several issues in private consultation with the judge and then tried to reach a compromise with their clients.

"We can't resolve the issue," Harchenhorn told the judge.

At the hearing next month, Galloway will decide whether the committee can legally remove Burns and under what circumstances.

"Depending on what the court finds, we may or may not take testimony on the factual issues," Galloway said.

Although Galloway said he understood the strong feelings on both sides, he encouraged the parties to try to resolve the dispute.

During a break in yesterday's hearing, attorneys for both sides discussed an offer that would have Republican committee members from outside the county mediate the case. But Burns rejected the terms of the offer.

"We are always willing to entertain a settlement, but that has to be mutually acceptable," Ostrander said.

Jefferson said yesterday that she would prefer to have party officials decide rather than the court. "This is a party issue, not a public issue," she said.

The fighting or even the appearance of it "could not come at a worse time," Jefferson said. "We are trying to deliver this state to the president."

Burns said after the hearing that "there will be fallout from this. How much damage, I don't know. It is regrettable that this has come about. I hope it has no effect on the [presidential] election."

Committee members say they followed the bylaws when they demanded Burns' resignation during an executive session July 6. Jefferson said she also followed advice from the state GOP organization in taking the action, which she called "housekeeping." Burns has refused to tender his resignation, contending that he will fulfill his duty as an elected official.

Burns has served on the nine-member committee since he was appointed to fill a vacancy in February 2002. He ran successfully for election to keep the seat later that year.

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