The Anne Arundel County Council was within its rights to remove Councilman Daryl D. Jones from his seat when he reported to prison, a judge has ruled, supporting the council's position that members must continuously live in their districts.
Circuit Judge Arthur M. Ahalt said in a decision released Wednesday that he agreed Jones has a permanent home in his district, but the County Charter calls for council members to "reside" in the areas they represent.
"Mr. Jones removed himself from his district when he reported to prison in South Carolina, thus vacating his office," wrote Ahalt, a retired Prince George's County judge assigned to the case.
Linda M. Schuett, Jones' attorney, said she would appeal to the Court of Special Appeals immediately.
The council voted unanimously to vacate Jones' seat in January when he began serving a five-month federal prison sentence on a single charge of failing to file a tax return. Jones filed suit, claiming the county acted illegally because although he would live outside his district while imprisoned, he was permanently domiciled in District 1.
"I'm just really disappointed," said Schuett. "I've never viewed this case as judging Councilman Jones for what he did or didn't do in his tax case. This case for me has always been what residency requirements exist."
She called the judge's findings regarding the charter "inaccurate" and said the decision "runs contrary to the case law and also contrary to the language in the charter." She has previously said that the council's interpretation of the law would allow "political mischief," such as the council's vacating the seat of members on vacation or in the hospital.
The council appointed Marine Reservist Peter I. Smith, a Democrat, to Jones' seat on Monday after weeks of deadlock.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat who is also a lawyer, called the judge's decision "bizarre" and said it sets a dangerous precedent.
"Under the judge's opinion, if I take a two-week vacation to Florida, the law would permit one of my colleagues to remove me," said Benoit. "Trust me, I'll be watching my back the next time I'm going on vacation, because if I'm having an argument with one of my colleagues, I could be removed."
County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson, who advised the council that it had the power to remove Jones, applauded the judge's decision.
"I want to commend [the council] for the courage to approve that bill notwithstanding the questions that were being circulated regarding its legality," said Hodgson. "But as we now see with the benefit of hindsight, my advice to them was well thought out and correct."
In his ruling, Ahalt also said the council was within its rights to pass the law vacating the seat, because the state Constitution gives a legislative body the ability to "determine the qualifications of its members." The judge also strongly criticized Jones, saying he was aware that he was being investigated on the tax charge when he ran for re-election in 2010 but did not tell fellow members.
"This deceptive conduct goes right to the core of the trust necessary to govern. Without trust governmental institutions fail," the ruling said. "This deceptive conduct also placed the council with great uncertainty, facing a legislative session with potential for deadlock on significant issues."
Council Chairman Derek Fink said he "never doubted" the outcome.
"I'm hoping this brings complete closure to the situation," said Fink, a Pasadena Republican. "The court case is finished. The council is once again whole. … As far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal."