The Anne Arundel County Council voted during its meeting Monday night to allow the Human Relations Commission’s student member to vote on commission business. Previously the student member was allowed to sit on the commission but not participate in voting.
The Human Relations Commission works to discuss ways to combat discrimination in the county and reviews discrimination complaints from residents to determine how to best resolve interpersonal issues related to bias.
The bill also includes adding the executive director of Arundel Community Development Services Inc. as a voting member and, after an amendment added at the council’s last meeting in light of ACDS Executive Director Kathleen Koch retiring at the end of the year, the new executive director, who was announced last week to be Erin Karpewicz, may take the role on herself or designate an ACDS colleague.
Peter Baron, director of government relations for the Office of the County Executive, said ACDS was chosen to participate with the commission because of the housing expertise it would bring to the table.
The extra role was added so the body would be at 13 voting members, an odd number which would prevent ties.
Council member Jessica Haire, R-Edgewater, raised concern that a teenager would be able to fine residents up to $10,000 if the bill were passed. She said it seemed like a lofty responsibility for someone so young.
“I do struggle with the idea of a student member who could be as young as 13 being able to levy a fine,” Haire said.
Human Relations Commission student members serve one-year terms and must be a county public high school student, nominated by the Chesapeake Regional Association of Student Councils of Anne Arundel County.
County Executive Steuart Pittman’s representatives said they felt certain the student had the maturity and knowledge to take on the responsibility.
“The administration is confident the young person placed on this commission is capable,” Baron said.
Haire was still doubtful but changed her tune after hearing the student who currently holds the position, Chesapeake High School senior Tara Kim, speak.
“The right to vote allows for my pursuit of passion — to lead the way for my peers and the countless leaders that follow in my footsteps. Leadership is communicating to a person their worth and potential so clearly they are inspired to see it in themselves,” Kim said. “I hope to act as a leader for students in Anne Arundel County, to follow in the footsteps of our voting members, our student council chairs and those who see the best in others. I hope you all see the best in me.”
The council then expressed their admiration for Kim’s eloquence.
“I vote for Miss Kim,” said council member Sarah Lacey, D-Jessup.
“After that, it’s hard not to,” said council member Lisa Brannigan Rodvien, D-Annapolis.
Members of the council who have worked with students in recent years voiced their support for the bill.
“I think a youth voice is very important to figuring out where discrimination is starting and to do our best to root it out so everyone can feel safe,” said Rodvien, who works as a county public school music teacher.
“As a proud former member of the Anne Arundel County school board, I think it’s timely to remind this body and the public that we have a student member of the Board of Education with full voting rights and they vote on issues a lot heftier than a $10,000 fine. Often the student member of the board is the adult in the room. I’m proud to vote for this bill,” said Allison Pickard, D-Glen Burnie.
The council also voted on transferring property in Millersville from the county to the Board of Education to build a replacement Old Mill Middle School South.
“We are excited to see the second phase of the Old Mill Master Plan get underway, and I assume this will be a 7-0 vote,” said Pickard, whose district the property lies in.
As Pickard predicted, the council voted unanimously in favor of the transfer. Alex Szachnowicz, Anne Arundel Public Schools Chief Operating Officer, said the system anticipates ground will be broken on the school in early spring and construction will be complete by 2024.
The council also voted against legislation introduced by Nathan Volke, R-Pasadena, that would have required the council’s permission to confirm the county executive’s appointment of an Office of Planning and Zoning officer. Andrew Pruski, D-Gambrills, Amanda Fiedler, R-Arnold, Volke and Haire all voted in favor. However, since a charter resolution requires five votes to pass, the resolution failed.
Volke argued on behalf of the bill, saying department heads are public-facing roles and should go through the most rigorous of approval processes.
“I think we, as a council, should have some oversight on who the county executive is putting in, not necessarily to stop it, simply to make sure that the person who is going into that position is someone that this council feels comfortable is going to represent the county in a public-facing way that’s going to be putting our best foot forward,” Volke said.
Baron asked Volke why he selected the head Planning and Zoning role and not other department leaders who also have public-facing roles. Volke said he felt the role was one that dealt most with the public and an office many of his constituents say they deal with regularly.
The three Democratic women on the council all opposed the resolution, saying it was overstepping the council’s power.
“I think we need to remember the director of the Office of Planning and Zoning is there to uphold the code which we adopt,” Pickard said. “I know we all like to play county executive when we can, including me. We are not the county executive. We do not hold executive function. I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’d like to make hiring decisions and firing decisions in certain times over certain situations but that’s not what this is.”
Rodvien added that the resolution politicizes an issue that doesn’t need to be political.
“I appreciate the current process. I feel like the director of Planning and Zoning has to have some very special expertise and experience and, as a body, we do at times have to jump into areas of expertise that we don’t necessarily have ourselves and we’re reliant on others to guide us,” Rodvien said.
“I think we can look back to the 2018 elections. There are a lot of political aspects to the Office of Planning and Zoning, and I feel like we could be setting up a really ugly tug-of-war when we need a person who is willing to step up and get the job done. We can’t have a lingering vacancy in such an important role.”