The panel that has placed 38% of Montgomery County’s General Assembly members into their seats on Tuesday night rejected a proposed rule that would have restricted members from voting to appoint themselves into the legislature.
After tense debate and raised voices among members, the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee narrowly voted against enacting that requirement—as well as a proposed amendment that would have merely recommended members recuse themselves from such votes. Twelve members of the committee voted no to the requirement while 11 voted yes, and two abstained from the vote. The recommendation died in a 12-12 vote, with one abstention.
When a Montgomery County-based member of the General Assembly leaves their seat mid-term, the county’s Central Committee members, who are elected at-large or in legislative districts, vote on who will fill the legislative vacancies. Those recommendations are sent to the governor to approve as a formality.
The central committee has been tasked with filling five vacancies this year alone after members of the General Assembly joined Gov. Wes Moore’s (D) administration. Currently, 13 of 34 state delegates and senators in the county—or 38%—were appointed by the committee. That is higher than the overall proportion in Maryland, which was calculated at 21% as of March.
The process has been criticized by some state legislators and good-governance advocates as undemocratic. It also offers entry into office without the months of fund-raising, coalition building, campaigning or scrutiny of a traditional electoral effort.
The recusal rule proposal was a more modest approach than others that have been floated, including a bill in the General Assembly that would have required special elections in some instances.
Under the proposal examined this week, current central committee members would still have been able to apply for vacancies and would not have been required to resign, but could not participate in the process, including the vote.
The central committee was set to vote on the proposal at a meeting last month but delayed the vote in order to receive guidance from the Maryland Democratic Party State Central Committee, said committee member Jim Michaels, who represents District 16 and is chair of the rules commitee.
According to documents obtained by MoCo360, representatives of the Maryland Democratic Party recommended the central committee not require its members to recuse themselves.
The recommendation said that while members should not vote on a matter in which they have a direct personal or financial interest, that prohibition does not apply if that interest is common to other members, such as a vacancy in office for which other members would also be eligible.
The party cited precedent that candidates for office such as Congress can still vote for themselves, and that Robert’s Rules of Order does not require recusal.
A memo from legal counsel associated with the state party said a local central committee does not have the legal authority to modify or restrict the right of any member of the local central committee to participate in the exercise of the central committee’s authority, as set forth in the state constitution.
Sarah Brand-Wiita, an at-large committee member, proposed the amendment Tuesday night that would have encouraged committee members to recuse themselves from voting. Brand-Wiita said it is important to encourage the recusal process to make the process more transparent and so that the public will have confidence in the committee.
“Otherwise, we have a situation where there is a line of applicants sitting right here, putting themselves forward for a vacancy process. And then one or two walk over to the table to vote, and then nobody else does, and it looks worse. Recusal is in the interest of this body of the Democratic Party,” Brand-Wiita said.
Some members supported Brand-Wiita’s amendment, while others said it should be on the applicant’s conscience to “do the right thing” and not something the committee should formally encourage.
Marc Anthony Robles, a committee member representing District 39, argued it’s not the committee’s place to make these decisions.
“The audacity of this committee to feel like we need to have some kind of pseudo legislation to stop people from doing whatever,” Robles said. “We have so much other business to take care of. This is not one of them. This belongs in the General Assembly. Not here.”
Robles applied for the District 39 vacancy last month, although he was not selected. Robles chose to recuse himself from voting.
“I recused myself because I knew that you wouldn’t vote for me if I didn’t,” Robles said.
Members of the central committee who supported requiring recusal have argued that participating in one’s own election violates the body’s code of ethics, which states that members “shall not use their office to gain special privileges and benefits, and shall refrain from action in their official capacities when their independence of judgment would be adversely affected by personal interests.”
Del. Julie Palakovich Carr (D-Dist. 17) sponsored a bill this General Assembly session that would require central committee members who apply for state legislative vacancies to recuse themselves from voting for the vacancy. However, the bill didn’t make it far in the legislative process.
Another bill from Del. Linda Foley (D-Dist. 15) would have set special elections for when legislative vacancies occur in roughly the first year-and-a-half of a legislative term. It would first be filled via the current appointment process, and then special elections would occur in the scheduled presidential midterms.
The committee is about to undergo its fifth appointment process this year when it will appoint a candidate to replace Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Dist. 17), who announced last month that he is leaving his seat in the Maryland House of Delegates to join Moore’s administration as a member of the Maryland Public Service Commission.
Greg Wims was appointed as District 39 delegate last month. The seat was vacated in March by Kirill Reznik, who left to join Moore’s administration as the new assistant secretary for inter-departmental data integration for the state Department of Human Services. Reznik began his General Assembly career when he was appointed by the central committee in October 2007.
Former District 16 Del. Ariana Kelly was appointed to the District 16 Senate seat, which became vacant after former Sen. Susan Lee was named secretary of state for Maryland by Moore on Jan. 10. As a result of Kelly’s selection to the Senate, her House seat was vacated.
Sarah Wolek, former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity and professor at University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, was nominated by the committee and appointed to Kelly’s house seat in March.
Bernice Mireku-North was nominated to fill a vacant seat in District 14 of the House of Delegates in January, after former Del. Eric Luedtke resigned the seat to become Moore’s chief legislative officer.