By Len Lazarick
Howard County elected officials of both parties are mightily relieved that Democrat Sheriff Jim Fitzgerald finally succumbed to intense political pressure from all sides and all levels and has agreed to retire.
The sheriff was accused by the county’s Office of Human Rights of bullying and harassing employees, using racial and ethnic slurs in the process, and creating a hostile work environment.
But when Sheriff Fitzgerald dug in his heels last week and refused to step down, other elected officials were not left with many legal options under Maryland’s constitution.
Not many legal options
First, a sheriff is a constitutional officer — the job is created in the state constitution and elected directly by the people, beholden to no other elected official. In some counties, Harford and Frederick, for instance, but not in Howard, sheriffs are still the chief law enforcement official. In county’s with separate police departments, like Howard and Anne Arundel, they largely handle court security and court papers such as warrants.
A proposed new Maryland constitution in 1968 did away with elected sheriffs, clerks of court and registers of wills. Organized opposition by these elected officials were among the reason that voters shot down the new constitution. Many of its changes have since been passed as amendments. But these elected hangovers from a 19th Century government structure have not been eliminated.
No recall, but impeachment
Second, Maryland doesn’t have recall elections for any state officials. Unlike many states in the west, voters here can’t have second thoughts and get rid of elected officials with a petition for a recall election.
Third, the Maryland constitution does allow officials to be impeached. But the provision has never been used. There is no process or standard for impeachment as found in the much older U.S. constitution. So when Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman urged the county’s delegation to pursue impeachment, they found nothing in law that would tell them how to do it or why they could.
Elected officials can be automatically removed if convicted of a crime that could send them to jail. But Fitzgerald was not accused of any crime — just bad workplace behavior, and bad language unacceptable in Howard County, like a white sheriff using the N-word or calling a past county executive a “Jew boy.”
Unacceptable behavior is not an impeachable offense. Remember that President Bill Clinton was not impeached for having sex with an intern, which he finally admitted, but lying about it under oath.
Cajole and negotiate
So what was Howard County to do? Cajole and negotiate.
In the executive suite of the George Howard building, the folks feel this has taken an excruciatingly long time, a major distraction from restoring Ellicott City from a devastating August flood and other priorities. The Office of Human Rights signed its report Sept. 1, but it was only brought to light four weeks by WBAL TV.
But the experience points to continuing flaws in the Maryland constitution and laws — continuing to elect courthouse officials only accountable to voters every four years, having no recall elections and having no hint of a process for impeachment in case it is needed.
Council chair makes the announcement
The announcement of Fitzgerald’s resignation and retirement Monday by the Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball and not Kittleman was also the most visible sign of Democrat Ball’s ambition to run against Kittleman in two years. Ball got the initial bite of the publicity apple by several hours, taking some credit for the negotiations that led to Fitzgerald’s departure.
Ball said in his statement that he realized that Kittleman’s call for impeachment would take too long, so he began discussions with Fitzgerald.
At the executive’s press conference two hours later, Kittleman didn’t dispute Ball’s role or question his timing.
Instead, Kittleman said the “real hero” in the whole affair was Lieutenant Charles Gable who filed the complaint about Fitzgerald to the Office of Human Rights.
Hogan has final say
Republican Kittleman may actually have a major role in the last act of this drama. The new sheriff under the Maryland constitution will be appointed by his ally, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, and Hogan doesn’t even have to appoint a Democrat to fill the post.
The initial vetting for the job is being handled by Hogan’s appointments office run by Dennis Schrader, a former Howard County Council member who is married to Kittleman’s director of intergovernmental affairs Sandy Schrader, a former state senator.