Arundel council sends voters new rules on ousting colleagues, county executive

Decision on when to remove elected officials convicted of crimes among dozens of ballot questions

August 06, 2012|By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

Spurred by the conviction of a former councilman and the indictment of County Executive John R. Leopold, Anne Arundel County lawmakers unanimously pushed forward new rules Monday to oust elected officials convicted of crimes.

Voters will decide in November whether to approve rules that require a vote of five council members to remove another politician from office and strip that politician of pension benefits.

While one provision sets up a process to remove councilmen, the other tweaks an existing process to remove a county executive. Both come into effect if a sitting official is convicted of a felony or a crime "involving moral turpitude or misfeasance or malfeasance in office."

These rules will be among more than a dozen other proposals councilmen send to voters, creating a crowded ballot that includes questions about when councilmen get vacations and what constitutes a "copy" of the county budget.

While all the changes come as part of the county's once-a-decade process to revisit its charter, recent criminal proceedings against elected officials pushed that issue to the forefront.

The council voted in January to vacate the office of former Councilman Daryl Jones while he served a federal prison sentence for not filing a tax return. At the time, the county did not have an established procedure for how and when to remove a sitting lawmaker from office.

The council decided Jones was not "residing" in his district while he was in prison. He has challenged the council's decision, and Maryland's highest court has agreed to hear his appeal to reinstate his office.

Meanwhile, Leopold was indicted in March on four counts of misconduct and one count of malfeasance on allegations he misused his taxpayer-funded security detail for personal and political gain. Leopold has denied wrongdoing and will stand trial in January.

Under the new rules sent to voters, a convicted county executive would lose retirement benefits and could be put out of office while a criminal case is on appeal.

"The county was never faced with a situation like this, and now we have a resolution to handle that problem," said Councilman John Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican. "You need to be able to come at this thing from several different angles and say, 'You did this, this and this. You're out.' "

Another question voters will see on the ballot is whether to let the county executive appoint a new council member if the council leaves a seat vacant for more than 30 days. In selecting Jones' successor, the council cast more than 100 ballots and spent more than a month deadlocked before settling on Peter I. Smith.

Even before they finished their work, lawmakers worried that the provisions to remove elected officials would get lost among more than a dozen other proposals councilmen are sending to voters.

"Are people going to really take the time to study and research and consider all of these?" said Councilman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Davidsonville. "Or are they just going to skip them because they're too many?"

Councilman Chris Trumbauer suggested putting what to do about elected officials convicted of crimes at the top of the ballot questions.

"Otherwise, we could have the vacancy stuff, which is the most important, I think, down at the bottom of the ballot," said Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat. "People may have given up at that point."

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