District 11 do-over? [Editorial]

We don't have enough evidence to declare the process for selecting a candidate to replace new Baltimore Development Corp. head William Cole a "travesty," as nine of the passed-over hopefuls did in a letter to the City Council. But we can certainly declare it disgraceful and most definitely not in keeping with recently enacted reforms that promised a transparent, community led process for filling council vacancies.

Fourteen candidates, including many with strong records of public service, spent four hours explaining their qualifications to a panel of community leaders, business owners and two council members, all of whom were selected by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young under a new protocol for filling council vacancies. Within five minutes of that public meeting's end, the panel voted to recommend Federal Hill Neighborhood Association President Eric T. Costello. Mr. Young had recruited Mr. Costello to seek the post, and he had told committee members that he "liked" the community leader, though he denies lobbying them. Even if Mr. Young didn't consciously try to rig the process, it looks terrible.

The new process used to select Mr. Costello was designed in reaction to the appointment in 2011 of William "Pete" Welch to fill the vacancy left when his mother, long-time Councilwoman Agnes Welch, resigned. Then, it was clear then that the process was effectively rigged from the start. This time, the facade of participatory democracy only makes matters worse.

The nine candidates are requesting that the council reject Mr. Costello and demand that the committee take more time evaluating him and the other candidates and consider input from the hundreds of letters of support and opposition submitted by community members. Under the circumstances, that would be reasonable. To be clear, we take no position on Mr. Costello's suitability for the job. The fact that he received as many letters of opposition as support bears investigation by the committee, but it's not necessarily disqualifying; community association leadership, after all, can be a rough business. Rather, the reason to send his nomination back is to make clear that when the council adopted the post-Welch reforms, this is not what it had in mind.

At the very least, the council needs to take several steps between now and the vote on Mr. Costello's nomination, which is set for Monday. It can and should question members of the selection committee on the process, and it should take the opportunity to vet Mr. Costello thoroughly. Council members should also demand that Mr. Young respond before the vote to a public information act request from one of the candidates, attorney Arthur McGreevy, who has asked for Mr. Young's appointment calendars showing his meetings with candidates, letters of support and opposition and other documents, according to the Baltimore Brew.

Ultimately, though, we should not be shocked that Mr. Young, when given the power to influence the process, used it. Few if any politicians in his place would do otherwise. The only answer to concerns about back-room politicking in the selection of nominees to fill vacancies on the council is to hold special elections. Council members have heard proposals for them before, most notably after the uproar caused by Mr. Welch's selection, and they have rejected the idea as expensive and impractical. Holding them would require schools and other polling places to be closed for a day, but only in one district, which could cause confusion. How much a special election would cost isn't totally certain, though when the idea last came up, the city's election chief estimated it at $91,000 for a single council district. Those are drawbacks, but they are not insurmountable. Maryland voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1996 authorizing but not requiring charter counties to fill county council (or, in Baltimore's case, City Council) seats through special elections; both Montgomery and Prince George's counties have done so twice. A constitutional amendment doing authorizing special elections for county executives or Baltimore mayor is on the ballot this fall.

The post-Welch reforms sounded good in theory, but in practice they failed to produce the kind of transparency or inclusiveness that Baltimore residents deserve in the selection of their representatives in city government. The council could try tweaking the process again or instituting more checks and balances so the council president doesn't have so much power, but the only way to put the final decision in the hands of the residents of a district with a vacancy is a special election. A bit of democracy is worth the price.


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