Anne Arundel County is something of an outlier in the way it selects its top law enforcement official.
Under the current system, the county executive unilaterally picks Anne Arundel’s police chief. But the County Council is considering a resolution that would pose a question to the voters in the November election: Should their charter be amended to require the County Council to confirm the county executive’s choice of police chief?
One of the resolutions’ sponsors said the change would provide more checks and balances within the local government. Plus, Councilman Andrew Pruski said, other local jurisdictions already have such a system.
In Baltimore City and Baltimore County, the council must bring every police chief nominee through a confirmation process before they can be officially instated. Prince George’s and Montgomery counties also give their councils approval power. And on the local level, a nominated Annapolis police chief must go before City Council for confirmation.
“It’s important for us to ask questions and have that input,” said Baltimore City Councilman John Bullock. “Whether it’s in Baltimore or any other jurisdiction, that police chief is going to have power over the entire force. We want their policies to be in line with what we’re hearing from our constituents.”
In Howard County, the county executive also appoints the police chief without the council’s approval. Council administrator Jessica Feldmark said she is “not aware of any attempts to change that recently.”
American government professor Irwin Morris said it comes down to “two competing objectives.”
“A unilateral decision, you would assume, is more efficient and easier to negotiate,” said Morris, who teaches at the University of Maryland, College Park. “But I can totally understand a council looking to have some oversight over the decision.”
Roger E. Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore's College of Public Affairs, compared the proposal to what is already in place at the federal level, with the legislative branch confirming Cabinet picks and judges.
But he said that if the change were eventually approved, it would “heavily change the dynamics” of Anne Arundel politics. A county executive might be forced to make more moderate picks, and would have to know which political party holds the council majority.
“An executive about to make a pick would have to think, ‘Is this someone I can get approval for?’ ” Hartley said. “It turns into a political negotiation.”
There are positives and negatives, Hartley said. There’s likely to be increased vetting, but also the chance of gridlock.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, a Republican, is against the proposed change. His spokesman, Owen McEvoy, said that Schuh views it as an “attempted overreach by the legislative branch.”
“The county executive has serious concerns about politicizing” the office of police chief, McEvoy said: “As you can see in Washington, confirmations can become sideshows and grandstanding opportunities for politicians. We don’t need Washington, D.C., politics at the Arundel Center.”
Anne Arundel County Councilman Derek Fink, R-Pasadena, said he thinks council approval “would probably be a rubber stamp, unless there was a major red flag, and if there was, why would the county executive pick him in the first place?”
An Anne Arundel County police spokesman said the department has no stance on the matter, as it typically doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
The council considered a pair of proposals at Monday night’s meeting that would have limited the county executive’s hiring authority — both co-sponsored by Pruski, D-Gambrills, and Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton. The council rejected the first one, which would have advanced a charter amendment requiring council approval for the executive’s pick for county attorney. A vote on the second resolution — concerning the hiring of the police chief — was tabled until the next meeting on July 16.
If five of the seven council members vote in favor of the resolution, the question will go before voters for approval in the November election. And if voters support the change, it will be written into the county’s charter, which spells out how the county government conducts its business.
Council Chairman Michael Peroutka, R-Millersville, was one of three dissenting votes on the first resolution. He said he wanted to postpone the second vote after hearing passionate public testimony in favor of more council oversight.
Peroutka’s issue with the police chief resolution was that it didn’t go far enough: “The chief law enforcement officer really ought to be elected.”
That’s the case in the Harford and Carroll county sheriff’s departments, along with many other Maryland jurisdictions. The Anne Arundel sheriff is also elected.
A handful of people testified Monday in favor of the twin proposals. The public’s comments surrounding the the police chief resolution were even more forceful. One man told the council that a system of strong checks and balances is what makes America special.
Some people brought up issues from the county’s past — regarding former county executive John Leopold — as a reason to crank up the oversight. Leopold was found guilty of two counts of misconduct in January 2013, relating to ordering officers on his police detail and county employees to fulfill personal and campaign duties.
Fink said the issues connected to Leopold wouldn’t have been solved by having county approval over the police chief’s appointment.
Bullock, the Baltimore City councilman, also acknowledged that requiring council oversight before hiring a police chief doesn’t fix everything. Bullock sat down with former Baltimore police commissioner Darryl De Sousa for an hour-long, one-on-one meeting before the top cop’s confirmation. He asked De Sousa about his experience in the department, he recalls, and went over constituents’ questions about the officer’s past.
De Sousa resigned after less than four months in the position following charges that he failed to file federal tax returns.
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“After him being confirmed,” Bullock said, “we realized there were other things we didn’t know.”