In a meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd to its chambers, the Anne Arundel County Council voted Tuesday to support a recommendation by State Department of Health and Human Hygiene Secretary Joshua M. Sharfstein to remove the county's health officer, Angela S. Wakhweya.
Before voting, the council passed an amendment to the measure that would put Wakhweya on paid leave for 60 days before her dismissal and urge that Sharfstein work with her and her attorneys to find her another directorial position within the state health department.
Council chairman Jerry Walker, a Republican from Gambrills, said Sharfstein had assured him earlier in the day that if the council backed his recommendation, he would work to find Wakhweya such a position.
The issue came to public attention early this month when Sharfstein sent a letter to council members and to County Executive John R. Leopold asking their "concurrence" that she be dismissed.
According to state law and county charter, no such dismissal can occur without confirmation from the county executive and the council. Leopold had agreed to confirm, leaving it to the council follow suit or not.
Council members voted 4-2 to back the change, with one member abstaining.
Sharfstein's original letter named no specific charges against Wakhweya, chosen in 2011 as the first African-American woman in the 81-year history of the county health department to hold its top job, but said that "the department has lost confidence that she can lead the health department effectively at this time."
The letter's lack of specifics led Wakhweya's backers to question the openness of the process. Sharfstein's office declined to comment on its recommendation and never spoke with her to enumerate any charges, according to her lawyer, Levi S. Zaslow.
At the council's Jan. 7 meeting, six of seven members said the matter had come to their attention only days before and they were uncomfortable voting on it. The panel voted unanimously to delay consideration of the move until its next meeting, which was Tuesday.
Twenty-seven people — some friends, some professional colleagues — rose to speak on behalf of Wakhweya, a Ugandan native and veteran of public health affairs in the United States and Africa, especially in the area of AIDS and HIV treatment, whom many described as supportive, generous and forward-thinking in her work.
Several supporters at both meetings suggested a culture of racism and intolerance for diverse nationalities at the Maryland health department played a role in the effort to oust her.
Councilman Peter Smith, a Severn Democrat and the council's lone African-American member, said Tuesday, however, that his research turned up no evidence of racism in the matter but that Wakhweya's determination to get things done quickly might have rankled some in the county hierarchy.
"She's a talented public servant who was placed in a minefield," he said.
Zaslow said he was disappointed with the outcome, adding that he and his client would explore further legal options.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun