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Harford council office sends wrong bill to county executive for signature

Earlier this summer, the Harford County Council's staff sent the wrong version of a charter amendment bill to the county executive's office for signing, and, had the mistake not been caught, the county's voters would have been casting ballots in November on a ballot question based on incorrect information.

The bill in question, 12-28, deals with changes to the county charter as it applies to procedures for replacing the county executive, should the office become vacant as a result of death, resignation or removal from office.

According to the minutes of the June 19 Harford County Council meeting, the bill was approved, 4-2, with council members Joseph Woods, Dick Slutzky, Chad Shrodes and Jim McMahan, all Republicans, voting for it and council members Dion Guthrie and Mary Ann Lisanti, both Democrats, voting against it. Council President Billy Boniface was absent.

The version approved and before the voters in November keeps the procedure for replacing the county executive similar to what it has been, namely that the council picks a replacement who is a member of the political party of the county executive being replaced. It also includes a provision for a mid-term election should a county executive vacate the office with more than two years left in the term of office.

At the June 19 meeting, however, Lisanti had offered an amendment that would have established a line of succession to replace the county executive, with the county council president being first in line to fill the vacancy. The line of succession was, as enumerated in the defeated version of he bill: "...The county council president would assume the position of county executive. The vice president of the council would then assume the role of president of the council."

Though Lisanti's amendment, which Guthrie also supported, according to county council meeting minutes, was defeated, it was the line of succession version of Bill 12-28 that was signed by county council members and sent to the executive's office to be signed into law.

The defeated Lisanti version of the bill ended up being posted on the county council web site as the officially approved version, however, a version that would be subject to review by the voters as a ballot question. Several weeks later, the mistake was discovered, County Attorney Robert S. McCord confirmed this week.

In addition, the incorrect version of the bill was signed June 19 for enrollment purposes by Slutzky, the council vice president. The council's administrator, Pamela Meister, also signed the incorrect version of the bill on a line marked "Certified true and correct," on June 19. Meister also signed the bill again the following day under the sentence: "Sealed with the County Seal and presented to the County Executive for approval this 20th day of June, 2012, at 3:00 p.m."

Subsequently, on June 21, Harford County Executive David R. Craig signed the incorrect version of the bill that had been certified correct.

McCord said when it was pointed out to him that the version of the bill approved and posted online appeared to be incorrect, he read through the text and, by a coincidence, was able to recall that the council had in fact approved something different.

At the June 19 county council meeting, the approval of a new department head appointment, Public Works Director Timothy F. Whittie, was on the agenda and cabinet members serving on Craig's cabinet, McCord included, were on hand for that action. It's not clear how long it would have taken for the mistake to be noticed if people from the county executive's cabinet hadn't been at the meeting.

"When it came to our side of the street and I looked at it I saw that the wrong bill came over," McCord said last week. McCord subsequently reviewed tapes of the June 19 meeting and realized the wrong version of the bill had been signed. He pointed out, however, that because it was the wrong version of the bill, it technically wasn't signed into law, but rather would have become null and void had no action been taken to correct the mistake.

The action taken, McCord said, is that the correct version of the bill was enrolled and walked through the process, and has subsequently been posted on the county council's web site.

The bill, however, has an anomaly that makes it procedurally different from other legislation approved by the council and signed by the county executive, namely that it has a legislative enrollment date of June 19, the date action was taken on the legislation, but it isn't listed as having been approved until Aug. 13, McCord said.

Under the charter, McCord noted, legislation must be presented to the county executive for his signature or veto within five days of the passage. (The charter also states that upon receipt of the legislation, the county executive then has 21 calendar days to either sign or veto it. If he does neither, the legislation becomes law at the end of the 21-day period.)

McCord said the rule, however, doesn't list a penalty for violating it and said the procedure that includes the five-day period is designed to ensure prompt action, not to kill legislation when mistakes are made.

Such mistakes, he said, are not out of the ordinary in the Maryland General Assembly and he said there are Attorney General opinions that affirm the principle that actions mistakenly written into law become null and void. Essentially, nothing can become law unless it reflects the actions intended by the body making the law, he said.

Asked if the wrong version of a bill had ever been sent by the county council to the county executive's office for action before, McCord said, "It hasn't happened that I know of and I'm going on 15 years."

Meanwhile, the ballot question as it will appear before the voters in November reads: "Question A, Charter Amendment, Vacancy of the County Executive. To amend the Harford County Charter by requiring the county council fill the position of the County Executive within 30 days with a qualified voter of the same political party as the immediately preceding County Executive. In the event a vacancy is filled 90 days or more prior to the next congressional primary election, the position of County Executive will appear on that ballot. the appointed or elected County Executive shall serve for the remainder of the unexpired term."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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