For Daryl Jones, a long road back to Arundel County Council

Two years ago, the fate of Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones was in the hands of a federal judge.

The Severn Democrat had pleaded guilty to not filing tax returns, the result of a years-long investigation into his law practice and tavern. Soon, he began a five-month prison sentence, had his law license suspended and was stripped of his seat on the council — with one colleague publicly calling him a liar.

Today, Jones has regained his council seat and is aiming to revive a political career that once lay in shambles.

At a recent County Council work session, there he was — advocating for a bill from his seat on the dais to allow developers flexibility with utility connection fees, chatting with colleagues, including one who blasted him two years ago. He's making the rounds in his district, while fending off questions about what office he might seek next.

Asked about his time in prison, his feelings on being kicked off the council or his struggle to regain his law license, Jones has the same response: He doesn't look back.

"I'll continue to fight and push forward," Jones said, speaking over coffee and fruit at a Glen Burnie diner near the law office where he now works. "You show me a lion without scars, and I'll show you a lion that can't lead."

Jones must work to convince voters that his problems are behind him, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College and director of the college's Center for the Study of Local Issues.

"It's an uphill struggle to try and rehabilitate the image and say, 'I deserve a second chance,'" said Nataf.

County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, added, "He's got to re-establish trust. I think he can do that.

"He repented for what he did. He served time. He was punished for it. He needs to make people understand it won't happen again."

In a county that has seen its share of politicians with legal troubles — former County Executive John R. Leopold was convicted of misconduct earlier this year and state Del. Don Dwyer is spending weekends in jail on drunken boating and driving charges — many believe Jones can stage a meaningful comeback.

"I don't think you'll find one single African-American leader in the county that doesn't support Daryl Jones. That goes across the board," said Carl Snowden. The Annapolis civil rights activist and former official with the state attorney general's office has had his own brushes with the law, including a drug possession conviction, but remains a force in local politics.

For now, Jones won't say if he has designs on public office in 2014. Term limits prevent him from seeking re-election for his council seat, and many colleagues and political experts say he faces a long road if he wants to run for another office and re-establish a political career.

Jones was elected to the County Council in 2006 and re-elected in 2010, representing northern and western communities including Brooklyn Park, Linthicum, Glen Burnie, Severn and Hanover. Jones, co-owner of a Glen Burnie tavern, became the second African-American to serve on the council.

It was during the 2006 campaign that he came under investigation for not filing personal and business tax returns. Today he describes it as a mistake made when he was overwhelmed by personal stresses that included an ailing mother, who died 11 days before the election. Shortly thereafter, a fire destroyed his tavern, Dotson's Live.

In August 2011 Jones was charged with one count of failing to file a return. He pleaded guilty, agreed to pay $108,369.57 and served five months in jail in early 2012. His council colleagues declared his seat vacant and named political newcomer Peter Smith to replace him.

Jones tried to block his ouster, then pursued appeals as he sat in jail. After the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, a Circuit Court judge in September affirmed that his removal was null and void.

He reclaimed his seat in September, with Smith resigning to accommodate the court rulings.

Now, Nataf said, Jones needs to go on an "apology tour," meeting with constituents and explaining he won't repeat his mistakes.

Snowden notes that Jones is already reaching out. Last month the councilman attended the annual Fannie Lou Hamer Awards honoring local women activists, and spoke at a meeting of the Caucus of African-American Leaders.

"I think he has a very bright future," Snowden said. "He has many alternatives in front of him."

Angie Rodriguez is one who will keep a close watch on her councilman. She expects Jones to resume attending meetings of the Brooklyn Heights Improvement Association in Brooklyn Park — just as he did before he went to prison.

Rodriguez, the association's president, said she's no longer concerned about Jones' tax charge. She just wants to resume working with him to improve the community.

"Whatever happened in the past is in the past," she said. "It's no use in harboring ill feelings."

Another constituent watching closely is Smith, who plans to run for the council seat in 2014. After the court rulings, Smith welcomed Jones back at the September meeting, offering him a handshake and sharing a few words.

He said Jones is now "doing what he needs to do to get things back on track."

Since returning to the council, Jones has been outspoken on issues including stormwater fees. He thinks state legislators might change the law requiring Anne Arundel and other large counties to collect such fees — and he would welcome that, saying stormwater pollution is a statewide problem needing a statewide funding source.

Jones is pushing a bill to lower the stormwater fee to $1 for all property owners in Anne Arundel. A public hearing is scheduled for Monday.

Nataf said Jones would be wise to focus on such high-profile issues. That's a good way to re-establish credibility in the community, especially if Jones plans to run for another elected office, Nataf said.

Nataf wouldn't be surprised to see Jones run for the House of Delegates. "The question is whether he can do enough to re-establish himself as a credible candidate," Nataf said, adding that he's not sure Jones has enough time to do that before the June 24 primary and the November general election.

Jones' effort to rebuild relationships includes those with council colleagues. He said there have been "no problems, no issues" with members since his return — even though it's the same council that booted him out of office less than two years ago.

At that time, some were sharply critical. In January 2012, as Jones pre-emptively fought his ouster, Councilman John Grasso called Jones a liar who didn't care about his constituents.

Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican who sits next to Jones in the council chambers, makes it clear he's not happy Jones is back. But he'll live with it.

"We all put aside political differences to do what's best," Grasso said.

And Benoit, who sponsored the bill that removed Jones, thinks the returning councilman can still be of service to the council — and his constituents.

"Daryl did the job for five years, so he knows what he's doing," Benoit said. "He'll pick up right where he left off."

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