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Special elections may take place of central committees

Several bills have been introduced in the General Assembly that would take away the responsibility of central committees in Maryland of recommending someone to fill a legislative vacancy.

House Bill 806, introduced by Del. Christian Miele, R-District 8, of Baltimore County, and House Bill 604, introduced by Del. David Moon, D-District 20, of Montgomery County, seek to replace central committees' recommendation process with special elections.

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HB 604 has been cross-filed in the Senate as Senate Bill 166, and Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4, of Carroll and Frederick counties, has co-sponsored it.

"It's hard to argue against people having the chance to weigh in on who is representing them," Hough said. "Giving them that power is fair."

Bills' specifics, support and opposition

The biggest difference between the two House bills is that HB 604 gives the governing body of each of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City the power to enact local law authorizing a special election, while HB 806 requires it of all these jurisdictions.

If HB 604 is passed, jurisdictions that enact such a law would then have its representatives in the General Assembly choose the candidates to run in the special election. It would take place the same time, and involve the same process as the next presidential election.

This special election would only take place if a vacancy occurs during the first year of the legislator's term. If it occurs after that, the local central committee of the legislator's affiliated party would still recommend someone to the governor. This is also stipulated in HB 806.

Larry Helminiak, vice-chairman of the nine-member Carroll County Republican Central Committee, said there are several problems with special elections.

Not only are they costly to taxpayers, historically, they have been poorly attended, Helminiak said. Holding them at the same time as a presidential election may solve the issues of additional revenue expenditures and bad turnouts, he said, but it would mean there could be a vacancy in the General Assembly for several years at a time.

"The solution would be to find a better way of doing it under the current process," Helminiak said.

Under the current process, which is outlined in Article 3, Section 13 of the Maryland Constitution, once a central committee makes its recommendation to fill a legislative vacancy, the governor has 15 days to appoint someone and may only choose from the name or names in that recommendation.

By limiting the number of people to choose from, the process helps ensure the governor cannot "play politics" with appointments, said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party.

Del. Trent Kittleman, R-District 9A, of Carroll and Howard counties, said though she co-sponsored HB 604, it was done in error.

"The exact truth is that this is my first term, and I was trying to figure out a way to choose which bills to sponsor," Kittleman said. "Being a lawyer, I make a point to try to read every bill, but I made a mistake."

She said that after speaking with members of the Maryland Republican Party, which is opposing the bills, she would want her name taken off of it if it is passed.

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If the process for filling a legislative vacancy is to be made, it should be the province of the committees — rather than state legislators — to make the initial recommendation as to how these vacancies are filled, she said.

"I would prefer to leave it up to the committees to come up with a solution to the process," Kittleman said, "The way we do it now definitely gets a replacement in much quicker."

Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5, said she supports these bills, which intend to give the choice of who represents them in Annapolis to the people.

"The public, and myself included, is demanding for a different process," Krebs said. "Leaving it in the hands of just a few is not working, and having a broader group decide would do democracy well."

She said the criticism surrounding special elections — particularly the associated costs and poor turnouts — are exaggerated.

"Depending on how big your district is, the cost of special elections is actually not that costly, something like $20,000," Krebs said. "If it's during a presidential election, it would be even less than that."

While special elections haven't been historically well attended, they would still be better than allowing a few people to recommend someone, she said.

"Low turnout is way better than nine people," Krebs said. "Whatever it is, people still have an option."

Hough said it has been his belief that the people should decide who represents them in the General Assembly since 2010. At the time, there was a legislative vacancy in District 3B, which was comprised of a large part of Frederick County and a small portion of Washington County. The Frederick Republican committee had recommended him, but Washington County chose to send another name to the governor.

Even though the majority of the district was made up of Frederick County voters, the governor appointed the person whom the Washington County Republican committee recommended.

If he had not won the primary seven months later, defeating the person who had been appointed by the governor, the voters of Frederick County would've been disenfranchised for another four years, he said.

The issue of possibly disenfranchising voters is something that cannot be corrected by central committees, Hough said. It is dictated in the state's constitution that if a district is split between several jurisdictions, all of the corresponding central committees have the responsibility of recommending someone.

"This is a hybrid model, with the committees still recommending if after a certain point," he said. "Generally speaking though, I'm for the people voting on these types of positions."

Cluster said for the most part, however, the Republican Party is opposed to these bills.

"These bills would strip the power away from the committees that is given to them in the constitution," Cluster said.

The reason central committees should have this power is to simultaneously eliminate costs to the taxpayer and lessen the control the governor has in appointing a replacement, he said.

He also said that the chairwoman of the Maryland Democratic Party is opposed to these bills.

"When you have both parties opposing a bill, it says a lot," he said.

Chuck Cook, political director of the Maryland Democratic Party, did not return multiple phone calls by 5 p.m.

Cluster said these bills were introduced after questions were raised concerning the recommendation processes used by several central committees throughout the state, including Carroll's Republican committee.

When former Sen. Joe Getty was appointed to Gov. Larry Hogan's Cabinet on Dec. 10, the Carroll Republican committee chose to hold their proceedings in closed sessions, and refused to release the list of applicants.

Shortly afterward, Hogan publicly called for central committees to carry out their processes in an open and transparent manner.

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MDGOP drafts process

Though it is unlikely these bills will be passed due to heavy opposition from both parties, MDGOP recognizes there are several inherent problems with the various processes utilized by the state's central committees, Cluster said.

To correct them, MDGOP has created a template, using Anne Arundel County's outlined process as a base, and sent it to all the Republican central committees for feedback.

Such a document will not only eliminate potential arguments, dissension and confusion, it will also prevent any future legislation taking the responsibility away from central committees from being enacted, he said.

Helminiak said he is in support of such a document. The MDGOP is holding its annual Spring Convention on April 17 and 18, and will be discussing the formalization of the process in detail with its central committee members, he said.

Kathy Fuller, a member of Carroll's Republican committee, said she has read through the party's process draft and finds it to be problematic.

The draft calls for all steps in the recommendation process to remain open to the public, including the interviews and voting.

A true selection process for a potential appointee might require sensitive questions be asked that might not get asked if it is a public process or if it might prove detrimental to the applicants if asked in public, she said.

"This is not good for either the applicants or the party," Fuller said.

She also said that during the recommendation process for the vacant Senate seat in District 5 and vacant delegate seat in District 4, the Carroll Republican committee voted in secret and should be allowed to continue that practice.

"This is an appointment process, and as such, committees should be free to conduct their appointment selection in private, as does the governor in his appointments," Fuller said.

The seat in District 4 was vacated when former Del. Kelly Schulz was appointed to Hogan's Cabinet on Dec. 17.

Cluster said this is the sort of feedback MDGOP needs to develop and finalize an effective recommendation process that all Republican central committees can follow.

"We want to centralize it so everyone follows the same basic rules," he said. "We need a document in place that tells the committee how to handle the process."

Reach staff writer Wiley Hayes at 410-857-3315 or wiley.hayes@carrollcountytimes.com.

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