By Len Lazarick
A state constitutional amendment to permit local voters to fill a mid-term county executive vacancy snuck up on Marylanders as Question 2 on this year’s ballot.
The amendment, first proposed by the Montgomery County delegation, got virtually no attention from reporters as it made its way through the legislative process earlier this year. It didn’t get all that much attention from legislators either.
At a March 6 hearing the House Ways & Means Committee that lasted less than four minutes, Del. Anne Kaiser, the lead sponsor as chair of that county’s delegation, said the bill, HB1415, was originally proposed by county lawyers when they were examining the law governing special elections to fill County Council seats there.
“We realized we didn’t have a parallel structure in place” to fill the office of county executive by special election, Kaiser told the committee.
The constitutional amendment merely allows the nine charter counties to hold a special election to fulfill a vacancy in the office of county executive. It also allows those elections to be conducted entirely by mail, as Montgomery County currently does when there is a council vacancy. The amendment does not force counties to hold special elections.
“I believe that the voters of the County should have the same opportunity to fill a vacancy in the position of County Executive as they do for a Councilmember,” Montgomery County Council member George Leventhal wrote to the delegation in January.
Only Montgomery, PG have special elections
Montgomery and Prince George’s County are the only two of the nine charter counties — with an executive and council having legislative powers — that have special elections to fill vacancies on their councils.
In the other counties, when an executive or council member leaves office before his or her term is up, the county council of that jurisdiction fills the vacancy.
The most recent case where this situation arose with the county executive was Anne Arundel County last year after County Executive John Leopold resigned following his conviction of abuse of power in office.
The seven-member council had to choose a person of the same party as Republican Leopold. After three votes, it was the three Democrats on the Anne Arundel County Council along with a lone Republican member who formed a majority to choose Laura Neuman for the job. Neuman was then director of the Howard County Economic Development Authority and had never been active in Republican politics.
Had there been a special election to fill Leopold’s seat, some better-known Republican such as Del. Steve Schuh or former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich, who both applied for the job, or even a Democrat might have been elected to fill out Leopold’s term.
Schuh ultimately beat Neuman in the June Republican primary. The delegate also voted against this proposed constitutional amendment both times it hit the House floor in March, as did several other Republicans.
Special elections by mail for Congress
Another provision of this constitutional amendment is not even noted in the four paragraph summary provided to voters in sample ballots. This allows the governor when calling a special election to fill a vacancy in the U.S. House of Representatives to have that special election conducted by mail.
The U.S. Constitution requires vacancies in the House to be filled by elections, but in many states, including Maryland, governors can appoint members of the U.S. Senate when a seat becomes vacant.