Give the public a say in Kamenetz's replacement (and don't turn tragedy into a chance for political gain)

Kevin Kamenetz’s death was a shocking event for Baltimore County. Ramming through a vote for a replacement without even taking a few hours for the public to voice an opinion about what they’re looking for in the person who will take over as county executive for the remainder of his term would compound the trauma. Using the occasion to further the career of another elected official would be callous and disrespectful.

Baltimore County’s charter gives the County Council free rein in choosing a replacement for a county executive who dies or leaves office for some other reason. All it has to do is select someone of the same party (in this case, a Democrat) who meets the age and residency requirements for the position. The charter gives no timetable, sets out no process and requires no public input. But Council Chairman Julian Jones is flat wrong to think the occasion demands no more than that.

We would not argue that the council needs to emulate the process Anne Arundel County used to replace former executive John Leopold after his criminal conviction. The council there solicited applications and held public interviews with candidates before selecting Laura Neumann. That made sense; Mr. Leopold had nearly half his term left when he stepped down. There are just seven months left before the next Baltimore County executive is inaugurated. The process in Towson need not be so elaborate, but to have no process at all besides some back room wheeling and dealing dishonors the deep impression Kamenetz made — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse — on the hundreds of thousands of people he served over nearly a quarter century. The time he had left to serve may be short, but he was no transient figure in county politics and government. The people of Baltimore County, we are sure, have strong views about what the council should do now, and they should get a chance to voice them.

In case they don’t, we’ll take the opportunity to provide our own. The idea of the council appointing one of its own is as foolish as it is distasteful. Councilwoman Vicki Almond, who is running for county executive, hasn’t publicly said whether she wants the job. Mr. Jones, who has said he thinks a current or former elected official should get the job, wouldn’t comment on his own interest in it either. Because the council has four Democrats and three Republicans, it’s all but certain that one of them would have to vote for him or herself to get the post. If they don’t think that would rub voters the wrong way, they’re delusional. Here is what they (and particularly Ms. Almond) should say: I appreciate that some people have suggested that I should be named to fill the remainder of Kevin Kamenetz’s term, but the last thing I would want to do is to appear to be taking advantage of this tragedy for my own gain.

That’s smart politics, but it’s smart governance, too. Appointing a member of the council to the executive’s post would simply create more problems — another vacancy to be filled. The charter calls for the county executive (in this case, the new appiontee) to appoint someone recommended in writing by the members of the appropriate party’s central committees for any legislative districts that intersect with the now vacant council district. Recent history in other jurisdictions has shown that process to be nothing but a mess. In the meantime, the council would be split evenly between the parties, threatening to create new levels of dysfunction in Towson.

Appointing a former county executive to the post has some merit — there are at least three of them who are eligible and potentially available — but the simplest and probably best solution would be to name a high ranking member of the Kamenetz administration as a caretaker for the next few months. There’s precedent for it: When Dale Anderson was forced from office in the 1970s, his chief administrative officer was named to the post. The person who currently holds that job, Fred Homan, is, by virtue of the charter, serving now as acting county executive. In many people’s estimation, he’s been running the county for the last 20 years or so anyway. There’s no question that he could make sure the trash is picked up and the potholes are filled until December.

But we could understand if the council would be reluctant to appoint him to the post. He has baggage and enemies, and besides that, his talents don’t lie in the public-facing aspects of the job. There are a number of other people who could carry on Kamenetz’s priorities, handle the remaining decisions to be made and hand the county off in good shape to whichever candidate wins in November. Recretion and Parks Director Barry Williams and Kamenetz Chief of Staff Don Mohler have both been mentioned as possibilities, and either would be a good choice.

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