The charges that former — and, evidently, future — Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones had evaded income taxes may have been a surprise, but everything that has come after that has been sadly predictable. The fact that he is now poised to regain his seat and feels a right to do so makes him the latest in a long string of Maryland politicians unburdened with anything approaching a sense of shame.
In November of 2011, Mr. Jones, a Severn Democrat, was sentenced to five months in federal prison for failing to file dozens of personal and business returns over a six year period. He tried to excuse his failing as an inadvertent slip by someone overextended with political, business and family responsibilities. But it should not be too much for the people of Anne Arundel County to expect that those who help set their tax rates (including a portion of the income tax) should pay what they owe. If providing honorable service to his constituents meant anything to him, Mr. Jones would have resigned then and there.
He didn't, and his colleagues on the council, understandably, cast about for the means to force him out. Unfortunately, unlike many other county charters, Anne Arundel's included no clear mechanism for them to do so. The only grounds on which the council had the authority to remove Mr. Jones was if he abandoned his district, and the council, acting on advice from the county's law department, declared that he had done so when left the county for prison in South Carolina.
But under Maryland courts' historically loose interpretation of the notion of residency, that was a stretch. The Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the removal was unlawful, in part because the council had ignored a century of Maryland jurisprudence defining "residence" as a person's domicile, not his abode. In this context, "abode" means any place a person sleeps, however frequently, but "domicile" means the place one considers home and always intends to return to. As the court notes, one can have many abodes but only one domicile. It is this distinction that has made it all but impossible to remove elected officials on the grounds that they do not live in the districts they represent. It is also why Gov. Martin O'Malley still votes in Baltimore, even though he neither lives nor owns property there, or why many years before Gov. Theodore McKeldin was able to run for Baltimore mayor while still serving in Annapolis.
That said, you can't fault the council for trying. Besides a desire not to serve alongside a convicted tax cheat, the council members had good reason not to relish the idea that the county would continue paying Mr. Jones his $36,000-a-year salary plus health and pension benefits while he was serving in prison. Their stated goal of seeking to avoid a five-month period during which Mr. Jones' constituents would lack representation was, of course, the most important, but it was undercut by the council's prolonged deadlock over choosing his successor. It took weeks and more than 100 ballots for the council to choose Peter Smith.
Now, though, he appears destined to be the one forced from office. Under the terms of the Court of Appeals decision, either the council will have to void its earlier action, or the Circuit Court will do it.
Perhaps the only positive development to come from this saga is that the county has subsequently adopted a charter amendment giving the council the power, through a vote of at least five of its seven members, to remove a councilman if he or she "is found guilty of, or pleads nolo contendere to, and is convicted of, a felony or a crime involving moral turpitude or misfeasance or malfeasance in office." A state constitutional amendment, adopted after Mr. Jones, former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, former Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson and Del. Tiffany Alston all refused to step down under similar circumstances, makes suspension and removal from office automatic for state and local officials when they are convicted of certain crimes. (Ironically, former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold gets a gold star for good conduct for his decision to resign upon his conviction for corruption charges without putting up a fight.)
The legal options for keeping Mr. Jones off the council may be exhausted, but the voters can still get the final say. Mr. Jones will be up for re-election, should he choose to pursue it, in 2014. It's up to his constituents to do what the council and courts could not and make sure he never holds elective office again. His failure to file tax returns might one day be forgivable; his effort to hold onto power against all obstacles is not.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun