Some Carroll County Republicans are livid over the county GOP central committee's nomination of former commissioner Robin Frazier to fill the seat being vacated by state Sen. Joseph Getty, who is resigning to become an aide to Gov.-elect Larry Hogan. Ms. Frazier lost her re-election bid for county commissioner in the Republican primary last year and was defeated again in a write-in campaign for the general election. No wonder many Caroll residents consider it "a slap in the face," as GOP Del. Susan Krebs called it, that a candidate they twice rejected at the polls is now poised to represent them in Annapolis.
Though the circumstances of this case are unusual, they echo an outcry that comes up almost every time an elected official resigns and the political powers-that-be — whether a central committee or a county council — get to pick the replacement instead of the voters. Carroll's central committee exacerbated the discontent by holding a deliberately secretive selection process that allowed for virtually no meaningful input from the public. The lack of transparency and accountability called up images of the worst abuses of the era of machine politics, when a handful of political insiders decided the fate of candidates in smoke-filled back rooms.
Whether Ms. Frazier is qualified for the position she is poised to hold is almost beside the point, though it must be said that after two back-to-back defeats within a year voters have every right to question why she deserves promotion to the Senate. She's best known as a central figure in last year's debate over commissioners offering Christian prayers to open meetings, which two residents challenged in court as a violation of the separation between church and state. Ms. Frazier not only rejected the charge but continued to offer such prayers even after a federal judge ordered her to cease the practice. It's probably fair to say her deliberate flouting of the law in that case may have contributed to voters' dissatisfaction with her performance on the council.
This isn't a partisan issue. Two recent cases in which vacancies were filled on the Baltimore City Council led to complaints that the selection process was rigged. When City Councilwoman Agnes Welch retired in 2010, the council, which completely controlled the process for selecting a successor, chose her son and longtime aide, Pete Welch, to replace her despite several criminal convictions on his record. That predictably created an uproar among district residents who felt they had been shut out of any chance for deciding who would represent them.
After that episode the council turned the selection process over to what was supposed to be a representative committee of local community leaders appointed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. When Councilman William H. Cole IV resigned to become head of the Baltimore Development Corp, the committee interviewed 14 candidates over the space of a four-hour public hearing but then took just five minutes to name Federal Hill Neighborhood Association President Eric T. Costello for the seat. The fact that Mr. Costello just happened to have the support of Council President Young led to a widespread outcry.
The Carroll County GOP Central Committee did itself no favors by refusing to release the names of the other candidates who applied for the position or to publish any other details about how the selection process worked. That made its claim that Ms. Frazier's nomination had been kept confidential "to protect the applicants and to keep the process free from outside interference" almost laughable. Instead they chose to follow a course that ultimately could not help but seem, as Delegate Krebs put it, "a sham and an embarrassment from beginning to end."
Officially, the selection of Mr. Getty's replacement is up to his new boss, Gov.-elect Larry Hogan. He hasn't said what he will do, but in almost all cases governors follow central committees' recommendations. There are some machinations underway in Carroll County to offer him a second choice so that he can avoid selecting Ms. Frazier, but no matter what, the people of Carroll County will be represented for four years by someone they did not choose for that job.
That's why such decisions shouldn't be left up to back-room deals among political players whose agendas may have little to do with voters' concerns. Last year voters strongly supported an amendment to the state constitution authorizing special elections for county executives, and voters have been able to fill county and city council vacancies through special elections in jurisdictions that choose to adopt them since 1996. Despite the practical problems and cost of opening the polls between regularly scheduled elections, the results are likely to be better than leaving such decisions up to a small clique of insiders whose choices may or may not coincide with those of a majority of voters. Bringing more transparency and accountability to a process that is so fundamental to citizens in a democracy is worth the price.