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Voters to consider special elections for mayor, county executives

This election, Maryland voters are being asked to consider something fundamental to democracy: elections.

Voters statewide will decide whether to approve an amendment to the Maryland Constitution that would allow local governments to hold a special election when there is a vacancy in the Baltimore mayor's office or a county executive's seat.

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Such special elections would still need to be established through local laws in each jurisdiction, but the amendment would give the city and county councils the power to authorize them.

"It's a pro-democracy proposition," says state Sen. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the measure. "When we replace executives who have left their position, the people really should have a say."

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Special elections could be costly, with expenses of up to $1 million in some large jurisdictions, according to the fiscal note on Raskin's bill.

Del. Anne R. Kaiser, who sponsored the House version of the bill, said a recent vacancy on the Montgomery County Council drew attention to the need for the amendment. While lawmakers found that special elections are possible for a council seat, they learned there is no legal basis for a special election in the executive branch of government.

"Shouldn't there be the ability to have a special election?" asked Kaiser, a Montgomery County Democrat. "We're giving them the permission to decide to do so. It's a case of cleaning up the code."

The matter is of particular interest in Baltimore, where the last two mayors — Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Sheila Dixon — initially took the post through succession instead of election. City law elevates the City Council president to mayor in the event of a vacancy. Dixon become mayor when Mayor Martin O'Malley was elected governor. Rawlings-Blake became mayor when Dixon resigned from office amid scandal.

City Councilman Bill Henry has been considering a bill to authorize special elections for a Baltimore City Council vacancy. Without the constitutional amendment, he could not seek such legislation to replace a mayor.

Henry said he doesn't know whether he would propose having special elections for mayor, but "I like having the authority. ... I like knowing that we can have a conversation about it.

"It's one thing to spend $100,000 to replace a council person when there is no real line of succession," he said. But "when people vote for the council president, they know this is the person who could become mayor if anything happens to the mayor. Is it worth $1 million to have the freedom to pick somebody else instead?"

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who recently advocated for special elections for council vacancies, said he does not support legislation to have such an election for the mayor's office. Under current law, he would automatically become mayor should Rawlings-Blake leave office prematurely.

"The council president would not be in favor of amending the current system that is in place and that has served the citizens well," Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said in an email.

The proposed constitutional amendment is one of two that Maryland voters will find on the Nov. 4 ballot. The other would put state transportation funds in a "lockbox," making it harder for governors and lawmakers to divert the money to other purposes.

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