Harford Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann's support swayed the governor to reappoint school board President Anne D. Sterling, who placed second in a contested nominating caucus vote, nine votes behind a candidate backed by conservative religious groups.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision last week marked the fourth time in more than three decades that a second-place Permanent Nominating Caucus nominee was appointed.
Caucus leaders and supporters of C. Everett Smith, who edged Ms. Sterling, 94-85, in May, claimed politics took precedence over fairness and democratic principles.
"The community turns out its largest representation ever to participate in what was believed to be a democratic process only to find out the process is democratic only when the county executive's choice wins," said Nancy Jacobs of Concerned Women for America. The national conservative group, with local members, supported Mr. Smith.
"A minority of one has won," snapped Mr. Smith, a 47-year-old Bel Air insurance salesman. "Too many people did research and spent time with the candidates and deserved to be listened to. I think it's inappropriate for a politician to usurp the will of the people."
But a spokeswoman for the governor defended the move. "There was a relatively slim margin separating the nominees, so the governor weighed very heavily the endorsement of the county executive, as he does routinely," said Page W. Boinest, the spokeswoman. "Mrs. Rehrmann has had a chance to see how the school board members operate, and her endorsement pushed [Mrs. Sterling] over the top."
Mr. Smith, who has eight years' teaching experience and is a member of the Bel Air Church of the Nazarene, dismissed the idea that the governor relied on Mrs. Rehrmann's endorsement because of the close vote.
"If I would have had 100 votes and each of the other candidates had 25, the result would have been the same," he said.
State Sen. Habern W. Freeman Jr. was Harford's county executive from 1982 to 1990. He has repeatedly introduced legislation to reform the appointment process to make it more responsive to the people and less subject to the whims of elected officials. He said it was only a matter of time before a "fiasco like this happened."
"It's absolutely absurd that you have what is supposed to be a democratic process to reflect the will of the people and one person comes along and changes things," said the 34th District Democrat. "Without Rehrmann's interference, Mr. Smith would have won."
Mr. Freeman said he will again introduce legislation this year that would require year-long terms for caucus delegates. He said he hopes to establish a seven-member executive committee -- representing county-wide groups like PTAs, the county council, farm bureau, teachers union, churches, the Chamber of Commerce and Parks and Recreation -- that would receive nominations from the caucus and make the final decision, removing the governor out of the process.
"After what happened this year I think people will wake up and see the need for this legislation," Mr. Freeman said. In past years, the proposed legislation never made it out of committee due to lack of interest.
Mrs. Rehrmann, a longtime political ally of the governor, did not return phone calls, but issued a statement saying she is pleased with the reappointment and "has worked with Mrs. Sterling under very difficult economic times and has had a very good working relationship with her."
Ms. Sterling, 54, a free-lance editor who has been involved in the PTA for 27 years, said she appreciates the support of the county executive. "It gives me a wonderful feeling to know that Mrs. Rehrmann believes in me," she said. "She jumped in early with her support and never wavered."
Governor Schaefer and Mrs. Rehrmann developed a friendship during her years as a state legislator. He endorsed her in her 1990 election bid, contributed $10,000 to her campaign and appeared at her December 1990 inauguration.
But Ms. Sterling denied any impropriety and said she didn't receive any special treatment because of her relationship with -- Mrs. Rehrmann. "I may have been painted as a political insider with connections," she said. "But that just isn't true. I'm just an average citizen like everyone else."
She added she thinks Governor Schaefer made a decision "which in his mind would really benefit the children of Harford County the most."
Also last week, the governor reappointed school board member George D. Lisby, who ran unopposed for the Aberdeen-area seat.
In May, the 33-year-old nominating caucus, composed of civic groups, churches and PTAs, found itself at the center of %J controversy when the county teachers union contested the results of the caucus vote, claiming a "deliberate effort by religious groups to stack the deck" to ensure Mr. Smith's victory.
Representatives of the union, the Harford County Education Association, and others demanded another vote. They claimed caucus officials failed to keep track of who received voting ballots and how many ballots were given out.
They also accused the caucus of being disorganized and allowing delegates to cast ballots under the names of groups they did not represent and make last-minute substitutes, creating confusion about who would vote and which group they would represent.
But Mrs. Jacobs dismissed such accusations of "conspiracies and deceptions allegedly committed by a supposedly monolithic band of 'extremists' called the 'religious right.' "
She added that "the people of this county who gave the current school board president a vote of no-confidence were parents, teachers and community groups motivated only by a common concern for our childrens' education and welfare," and said no particular "group" was responsible for Ms. Sterling's loss.
Ms. Sterling said she is excited about the future of the school board.
She said the board as a whole will strive for a closer working relationship with the state Board of Education and that her personal goals center on strengthening the study of foreign languages in the middle schools, further developing a five-year master plan for every aspect of the county's schools and encouraging more parent involvement in decisions.