Officials developing plan for replacing executive

Harford among many counties without clear succession rules

June 05, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Tom Toporovich's advice to Harford County Council members looking to replace County Executive James M. Harkins: Don't sweat it - the process likely will be far less complicated than expected.

The 75-year-old Dundalk resident speaks from experience in working to replace an executive who leaves office in the middle of his term. In 1974, Toporovich had a front-row seat when the Baltimore County Council picked Frederick L. Dewberry to replace Dale Anderson.

"Things went very smoothly," said Toporovich, who served as secretary to the council at the time. "As I remember, the whole process took about 20 minutes, and most of that time was spent by council members congratulating Fred."

Harford County officials hope they can devise a plan that will go just as smoothly. On May 25, Harkins announced that he would resign July 15 to take a top environmental job in the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Council President Robert S. Wagner said county lawyers have been drafting a plan that could be in place before the end of the week.

Not sure whether it's a blessing or a curse, Wagner said the county charter "pretty much gives us a free hand in determining the direction we go."

"You don't want to have a process where you get halfway through it and you say, `Oh, man, this is not working,'" he said. "You need a process that you don't deviate from. Whatever we do will set the precedent for the future. If this happens again in 10 or 15 years, those council members will look back to see how we did it this time."

Wagner scratched one early idea: having a replacement named and ready the minute Harkins leaves.

"I know I said this is what we wanted to do, but we have to wait until he is officially gone," he said. "Come July 13, he could say, `Something has come up, and I'm not going.'"

Wagner and the legal staff also are rethinking the possibility of advertising for potential candidates. "What if you advertise and get 300 applicants? What do you do? It is something to think about. We are free to screen [potential candidates] and choose whoever we want. It's completely up to the discretion of the council."

Wagner also said he was not sure it was fair to limit the candidate pool to the four people whose names have been bandied about: Wagner, Councilman Robert G. Cassilly, Havre de Grace Mayor David R. Craig and Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the county's statehouse delegation. Like Harkins, all are Republicans.

"At this point, it is still fairly wide open for anyone who wants to be a candidate for the job," Wagner said. "We are not limiting the list of candidates to the few people we have heard from so far."

One scenario has Wagner being appointed county executive and Cassilly filling his position as council president. That would leave an open council seat.

Glassman said he "really wants the job" but has not determined whether he would be a candidate. He is assessing financial implications and expects to announce his decision this week.

Earlier this year, Harford County joined all of the other Maryland counties with charter governments and declined to support a bill in the General Assembly that might have helped them fill county-executive vacancies.

Legislation introduced by Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman of Howard County would have given charter counties the option of calling for a special election to fill a county executive vacancy. He said the idea came from the Howard County Council's 10-year review of its charter.

No county supported the concept.

"We looked at it, but we didn't see any support for it," said Michael Sanderson, legislative director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

Sanderson said that while counties' guidelines on replacing a chief executive were "relatively spotty," there seemed to be no desire to change their systems.

Baltimore County - which had dealt with replacing Anderson 30 years ago after he was convicted on corruption charges and went to jail - opposed Kittleman's bill. County officials worried it would interfere with their existing process, which is about as vague as that in Harford.

"I didn't see a need for it," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where the bill languished without being called for a vote. "Like, what do we need this for? Nobody came in expressing support for it."

Wagner said he considered a special election but decided against it.

"This has to be a quick turnaround," he said. "We have to have someone in place 30 days after Harkins leaves. I don't think it would be possible to have a special election with the time restraints we have now. I don't think we could throw one together that quickly.

"We're exploring new territory," Wagner said, but there is a reluctance to break with tradition and amend the county charter, which stipulates only that the council pick a successor within 30 days of an executive's departure and do so by a simple majority vote.

"This isn't the time to talk about a charter amendment," Wagner said. "That would be no help. It wouldn't be on the ballot until the next election. We need to move forward with what we have in hand."

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