It's a terrible time for the Anne Arundel County Council to be engaged in a protracted standoff over the replacement of one of its members. The body's prestige was harmed enough by the circumstances that led to the removal of Democrat Daryl Jones, who is currently serving time in federal prison for failing to file income tax returns for several years. It has not been helped by the use of a racial slur by one of the council members during deliberation over Mr. Jones' replacement, and it has further been damaged by the seeming indifference of some members of the Republican majority about whether residents of the 1st District have any representation.
Most of all, the recent indictment of County Executive John Leopold on charges that he misused county employees for his personal and political benefit makes strong leadership from the council more important than ever. Despite Mr. Leopold's efforts to project an image of business as usual, it is inevitable that his legal woes will distract from the running of the county. The council's handling of the vacant seat contributes to a sense that nobody can be trusted with the public's business.
Making matters worse, County Attorney Jonathan A. Hodgson has advised council members that their continued standoff only increases the chances that Mr. Jones will succeed in his effort to overturn his removal. His case is strong enough as it is — the council lacks authority to remove a member for malfeasence but instead voted Mr. Jones for violating the residency requirement of his office while he is in federal prison in South Carolina. Given the broad interpretation courts have given to the concept of "residency" for Maryland politicians, the removal was an iffy proposition to begin with. The longer they go without picking a new councilman, the more ineffectual they look both to the court and to the public.
What's most curious about the 3-3 split is that both of the candidates are well qualified. Former state Sen. Mike Wagner is being backed by a faction of three Republicans on the council, and Peter Smith, a Marine reservist, has been supported by the council's two Democrats and one Republican. Each brings different attributes to the table, but either could make an excellent councilman.
Mr. Wagner's chief attribute is his experience in state government. He served in the legislature for 16 years and could provide a steadying presence on a council dominated by political neophytes evidently intent on demonstrating the down side of term limits. He has a long association with Mr. Jones, meaning he could presumably offer some continuity in the district's representation, and he is a political moderate, which could help him in dealing with a polarized council.
Mr. Smith brings youth and energy to the table, plus a wealth of valuable experience from his military career. He has worked extensively in finance and information technology, which would be useful skills for a local legislator. The large number of veterans, reservists and active duty military in Anne Arundel makes Mr. Smith's time in the Marines even more useful for the council. Mr. Smith also identifies himself as a political moderate — his wife is a Republican, so evidently he has some experience in working across the aisle.
There are two other considerations we believe tilt the scales slightly in favor of Mr. Smith. The first is that if appointed, he would run again, and Mr. Wagner would not. Although some members of the council may consider it appropriate to name Mr. Wagner as a caretaker for the seat, lest they give Mr. Smith or anyone else and advantage in 2014, but it also makes Mr. Wagner less accountable to his district. Mr. Smith knows that if he wants a chance to win his seat in the next election, he will need to prove himself, and that's a good thing for the people of the 1st District.
The second is race. Mr. Jones was the council's only African-American member. Mr. Smith is black, and Mr. Wagner is white. That should not, of course, be the only or even the most important thing the council considers. But some Republicans on the council have appeared hostile to the idea that it should factor into the conversation at all, and that's wrong, too. Arundel political observers have been lamenting the fact that the county charter includes no tie breaker. If they're looking for one, this beats a coin toss.
All that said, the most important thing is that when the council meets on Monday, it needs to pick someone. The council is doing real damage to its integrity and to the public faith in local government in a pointless fight over which of two good options to choose. The six remaining council members need to stop acting like children and start acting like leaders.