This story has been updated June 18 with a letter to the editor at the bottom in response to remarks reported in the story.
By Glynis Kazanjian
More than 50 years ago, incumbents serving as sheriff, court clerk and register of wills successfully fought to keep their positions elective rather than become appointed, and the sentiment has not changed today.
But while incumbents and challengers argue that staying elective keeps politics out of their offices, the races for the largely administrative positions are becoming more political.
“The question that we’re talking about isn’t should they be elected, it’s would we get better people in these positions through an appointive process versus an elective process,” said Howard County Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane.
Many states have appointed clerks of court and positions equivalent to register of wills. Maryland’s constitution, however, specifies that people holding these offices are elected to four-year terms. Additionally, the races are partisan on the ballot.
Macfarlane, a Democrat, said his Republican predecessor Kay Hartleb, CORRECTION 6/18/18: a six-term incumbent he beat by 250 votes in 2010, ran the office like it was “1970.” He claimed the technology systems were outdated. He accused Hartleb of having no “employees of color.” And, he said she practiced discriminatory, anti-immigrant policies.
[Editor’s note: Hartleb responds in a letter to the editor at the bottom of this story.]
“It was only through the electoral process that all of that could be changed,” Macfarlane said. “Anyone who really cares about serving the public well, it’s important to have staff that are diverse that represent the community. It’s important to have policies that follow the law and treat everyone equally. My outlook on the world shapes how I do my job and that is shaped in part by my ideology and my party.”
In comments before a Democratic forum held in March, Macfarlane said he thought it was important to have “progressive Democrats” in every level of government service.
A position of leadership
Alan Bowser, a Democratic candidate for clerk of the court in Montgomery County, says because clerks are elected by thousands of people, they have an obligation and an opportunity to speak out about issues they feel are important to the community.
Bowser, an attorney, acknowledges a court clerk cannot change the law, but he believes the people in the courthouse can do more than just their statutory responsibilities.
“As I travel around the county the things that engage people the most are the community engagement of the court house, the willingness to be an advocate for community issues of interest – like criminal justice reform and increasing juror pay,” Bowser said.
These three positions have many duties, such as the register of wills preserving probate records, collecting fees and protecting the wishes of people who have died as wills are executed. He or she also serves as clerk to the Orphans’ Court.
The court clerk is responsible for maintaining and distributing court records, issuing writs, administering oaths to some officials, establishing procedures with other agencies and issuing business and marriage licenses. Currently, the salary for clerk of the Circuit Court ranges from $92,600 to $114,500 in Maryland, depending on the size of the jurisdiction.
The register of wills salary is structured the same as the clerk of court, topping off at $114,500 for the largest jurisdictions.
Paul Bessel, chair of the Montgomery County Charter Review Commission, said he believes these administrative positions should be appointed.
“Most people are not familiar with what people in these jobs do or the people running for the jobs,” Bessel said. “What I’m afraid of is that too many people just pick the first one on the [ballot] or a name of a friend and they don’t’ make an intelligent choice. Or, they don’t vote at all for those positions.”
Bessel, who is active in Montgomery County politics, called for more political forums on his Facebook page this spring.
“Since we are electing them, people should know about them,” Bessel said. “I’m willing to bet that a tiny fraction even knows these races are elective. Even fewer people know who these candidates are.”
Incumbents prefer elective process
Maryland’s constitutional convention of 1967 proposed that voters stop electing sheriffs, clerks of the circuit court and registers of wills. The incumbents disagreed vehemently then, helping to defeat the entire constitution, and the candidates for these courthouses offices disagree now.
Amy Craig, chair of the Conference of Circuit Court Clerks and the Dorchester County Court clerk, said changing the positions from elective to appointed has been discussed, but Circuit Court clerks unanimously want the position to remain elective.
“The elected clerks embrace being a part of their individual communities and therefore enter the position knowing that they have to be elected,” Craig said. “This process holds the clerk directly accountable to the voters and constituents.”
Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore, president of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association, agreed and said the sheriff shouldn’t owe his job to a board or county government.
“It actually keeps politics out of the office more so than if it were an appointed office,” Mullendore said. “Thus, the sheriff is responsible to the many and not the few.”
‘It shouldn’t matter what political party I am’
But not everybody agrees that there is a place for politics in these roles.
Robert Duckworth, clerk of the Circuit Court of Anne Arundel County for the last 24 years, says it should be elected, but it should not be partisan.
“This office serves all the people, and party politics in the delivery of the services of the clerk’s office should never be part of the responsibilities or duties of the clerk,” Duckworth said, who is not seeking re-election this year.
Macfarlane’s Republican opponent, volunteer firefighter Shawn Conley, said the role of the office of register of wills is to service citizens of the community with integrity, respect and compassion who have lost a loved one. He considers the office “apolitical.”
“I look at the register of wills office as an extremely apolitical office,” Conley said. “If I’m doing my job properly, it shouldn’t matter what political party I am. I should help everybody.”
Conley said he was encouraged by friends to run for office after helping a friend who had recently lost a loved one go through the probate process.
In February, three lawmakers – two Republicans and one Democrat – sponsored legislation calling for a constitutional amendment to require vacancies for court clerk and register of wills to be filled with replacements of the same political party as the previous officeholder. The bill, which received one hearing, failed to advance in the Judiciary Committee.
Sheriff offices are different across the state
Sheriffs across the state have different responsibilities, jurisdictions and salaries. In Montgomery County, where incumbent Sheriff Darren Popkin, a Democrat, is being challenged by Republican Jae Hwang, the sheriff is the law enforcement arm of the judicial system.
Sheriff’s deputies provide courthouse security, transport prisoners, apprehend fugitives, serve arrest warrants and court orders, conduct evictions and asset seizures, and other specialized duties including participating in the gang and firearms task force and perform welfare checks on domestic violence victims.
In other counties, the sheriff’s department is the sole law enforcement agency.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, a former deputy who has served as sheriff for 12 years, believes an elective position allows him to stay closely connected to his constituency. The conservative leader who has embraced federal immigration enforcement programs and speaks openly about politics, also says those political beliefs affect his decision making.
“I report directly to the voter,” Jenkins said. “As an elected sheriff, I can make daily decisions on a daily basis that brings me closer to the people, rather than going through an elected person.”
Letter to the editor: Hartleb responds to Macfarlane
I would like to specifically address the comments from Byron Macfarlane, as reported by journalist Glynis Kazanjian, as these comments are false and defamatory. It is first stated that I was a “six year incumbent,” when I in fact was a six term incumbent, having served as Register of Wills for twenty-four years. [This reference has now been corrected.]
His libelous claim that I ran the office “like it was 1970” with outdated technology was also totally false. There are 24 jurisdictions in Maryland, each with a Register of Wills office that is under the control of the Comptroller of the Treasury. Implementation of technology was never the decision of the individual counties (or registers) to decide and all of the offices were computerized at the same time.
During my six terms, however, our office was instrumental in creating numerous programs and forms to be used statewide. My chief deputy was a key member of the technology committee that advanced these programs. In addition, while I was in office, the Howard County Register of Wills Office was one of the first, if not the first, to electronically file all of our records dating back to the 1800’s, and served as the testing site for many of the programs developed by the technology committee.
It is also worth mentioning that in the twenty-four years that I served as Register, my office consistently achieved perfect legislative audits performed by the State of Maryland.
In the article, Macfarlane also accused me of not having diversity in my office and practicing discriminatory and anti-immigrant policies. This accusation is also totally false and inflammatory. Throughout my term as Register of Wills, people of many diverse backgrounds worked in different capacities in the office, including Hispanics and African Americans who worked in the office supervising the digitizing of files and performing community service.
I don’t know what Macfarlane is talking about concerning his off the wall statement that I practiced “anti-immigration policies.” I am grateful and proud that my grandparents were fortunate enough to immigrate to this country. Just last summer I helped a friend from El Salvatore apply for citizenship. Several years ago, I also helped a young woman from Russia come to this country and eventually attain permanent citizenship.
Mr. Macfarlane is guilty of defamation of my character and making false claims for the purpose of advancing his candidacy. I am also shocked that the reporter would print his libelous remarks without checking with me regarding the truthfulness of his claims.