Replacing Mr. Cole [Editorial]

Our view: New process for filling a council vacancy must be open, inclusive and independent

September 08, 2014

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is expected Tuesday to formally begin the process of finding a replacement for former Councilman William H. Cole IV, who resigned to become head of the Baltimore Development Corporation. Much is at stake for Mr. Cole's district, which encompasses a diverse array of neighborhoods and the city's central business district, but much is also at stake for the council itself to show that it has learned from the debacle that ensued last time it had a vacancy.

This is the first trial of a new process adopted after the mid-term retirement of former Councilwoman Agnes Welch. Then, Ms. Welch's former colleagues completely controlled the selection of her replacement, and, in what was a surprise to no one, they picked her son and long-time aide, Pete Welch, despite several criminal convictions on his record, giving him a huge advantage in the upcoming election, which he won. The whole thing stank of insider dealing in service of a foregone conclusion, and it included no meaningful input from those who had the most at stake in the decision: the residents of Ms. Welch's district.

Under the new process, Mr. Young has the task of appointing a selection committee, which an aide says he expects to complete Tuesday. The council's rules specify that it must have at least 13 members but no more than 25, and that a majority of them must be presidents of neighborhood associations in the district or their designees. Three must be representatives of businesses or business organizations in the district, and two must be council members from adjacent districts. Mr. Young gets to select the chairman.

That group is required to hold a public hearing within 30 days of the appearance of a vacancy (in Mr. Cole's case, that means by Oct. 1) and may conduct follow-up interviews with the candidates. According to the council's rules, all actions — hearings, interviews and votes — must be advertised in advance and open to the public. Within 30 days of the public hearing, the committee is required to submit a recommendation to the council, based on a simple majority vote. The council then has the opportunity to accept or reject the recommendation.

After the Welch selection, we advocated for special elections to fill council vacancies, and we continue to believe that's the only way to truly ensure that a district's voice is heard. There's no question that the new process represents an improvement, but how much of one remains to be seen. The committee will only be as good as its members, and the possibility certainly exists for the council president to stack it with members he controls.

Mr. Young's spokesman says that is not his intention and that he is appointing people "who are independent, have a vested interest in the district and will take their role seriously." We certainly hope that proves to be the case. The 11th District is a tricky one to represent. It includes relatively affluent neighborhoods such as Federal Hill, Bolton Hill and Mount Vernon but also some where poverty is more prevalent. It contains the downtown business district, the Inner Harbor, the Locust Point industrial area and the stadiums. As such, the district plays a disproportionate role in Baltimore's employment and economic activity, and it needs a councilman who can strike an appropriate balance between the interests of businesses and residents. Mr. Cole is generally thought to have done a good job at that, but it's not easy.

We urge the committee to avoid a rush to judgment and to listen closely both to the candidates themselves and to the members of the community who aren't represented on the panel. If the recent candidate pool for state legislative races is any guide, there is no shortage of talent in the area. We need a process that ensures that the most qualified person gets the job, not the most politically connected.


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