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Harford chief's departure moves up by two weeks


Harford County Executive James M. Harkins will speed up by two weeks his early departure from office to join the Ehrlich administration.

Harkins said yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has asked him to take over the Maryland Environmental Service on July 1, instead of July 15 as previously announced.

MES is an independent, quasi-state agency that operates dozens of water and wastewater plants around the state.

The accelerated departure compresses the timetable for the County Council to devise a procedure to replace Harkins, who will leave office 17 months before his term expires. Dion F. Guthrie, the council's only Democrat, speculated that Harkins moved up the date to help the council.

"By leaving on June 30, the council can appoint a replacement at its July 5th meeting, the only meeting we have in July," Guthrie said. He said it would be difficult for the council to call a special session to act on an appointment later in July because at least three members will be away.

However, Guthrie criticized Harkins' decision to leave office before his term is up. "I don't think it was proper," he said. "I don't think it was right."

He said the early departure puts immense pressure on council members. "This is a big responsibility. It could shape the direction of this county for nearly 10 years," he said of the possibility that the appointee could go on to win election in 2006 and re-election four years later.

It's the first time an executive has left midterm since Harford went to charter government in 1972. The charter states that a replacement must be selected within 30 days of the predecessor's departure, and requires a majority vote from the seven-member council.

Robert S. Wagner, council president, said recently that he wants to have a process in place so the council can vote to name an appointment as soon as Harkins leaves.

County Administrator John J. O'Neill Jr. said he will serve as acting executive until a replacement is sworn in. O'Neill said that he has talked with Harkins about joining him, but added that he would not leave until a new executive is appointed.

Harkins, the only Republican head of a Maryland county with charter government, was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2002.

"It's a wonderful job," Harkins said yesterday, though he added that the stress takes a toll. "I told my wife that it felt like 2 tons of weight were taken off my shoulders. It's really a tough job. There is stress every day, trying to balance the various interests and trying to do the common good."

Before his appointment to the MES post, Harkins he had been giving "serious consideration" to running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes. But he said he changed course because he anticipates that Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele will seek the seat.

Harkins' name also has also come up as a possible replacement as lieutenant governor should Steele run for the Senate. Harkins said he was not lobbying for the job but "would be honored if the governor considered" him for the position.

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