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With new state law on election ties in effect, Aberdeen moves closer to instituting runoff

Aberdeen is one step closer to adopting runoff elections as the mandated way to decide between two candidates who are tied after all the votes are counted.
Aberdeen is one step closer to adopting runoff elections as the mandated way to decide between two candidates who are tied after all the votes are counted. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

Aberdeen city officials are moving closer to adopting a charter amendment providing for a runoff when there are ties in future elections for mayor or city council seats.

City Council members and Mayor Patrick McGrady briefly discussed a draft amendment during an hour-long work session at City Hall Monday evening, two days after a new state law took effect Saturday requiring municipalities to "fill a vacancy that resulted in a tie vote in an election for municipal election within 90 days after the election."

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House Bill 852 passed during the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly in direct response to what happened in the November 2015 Aberdeen city election in which two candidates tied for the fourth of four council seats, and there was nothing in the city's charter about how the city should resolve the deadlock. Harford Del. Mary Anne Lisanti was one of the legislation's primary sponsors.

As a result of the tie between incumbent Stephen Smith and Sean DeBonis, the city attorney ruled the council seat should be declared vacant, with the mayor to fill the vacancy with the approval of a majority of the three remaining council members. Although city election officials urged the mayor and council to hold a runoff, the attorney's advice was followed out of concern with the legality of holding a new election.

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What ensued was a five-month stalemate, as McGrady, who was elected for the first time in November, as were two of the three council members, submitting nominees twice, both of whom were rejected by the council, before they all finally settled on a third nominee, Steven Goodin, in April. Unlike the other two nominees, DeBonis and Jason Kolligs, who had been candidates in the election, Goodin had never run for public office.

McGrady said Tuesday the draft amendment calls for a runoff election to be held within 30 days of the city Board of Elections certification of the final result of the regular election, with either candidate involved in a tie able to opt out of the second election.

Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck said the runoff format is what they agreed to during an earlier meeting with members of the Board of Elections. McGrady said the draft had been sent to the city board and to the Harford County Board of Elections for comment, but there had been no response from either.

McGrady said the Town of Perryville has a provision for a coin flip, which he noted would be "less costly" than holding a runoff costing $10,000 to $15,000. It also was noted that some municipalities favor letting the remaining council members vote to break the tie. Landbeck, however, said anything short of a runoff is unacceptable.

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"People have a right to cast that vote," she said.

McGrady said he would like to introduce the amendment at the next regular city council meeting on Monday, Oct. 10. The only concern, he said, is if the 30-day period will be long enough to accommodate advertising and ballot preparation requirements of the county board, which runs the city's election.

He said following the work session that he will discuss that issue with the county board this week.

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