Rockville Amends Special Election and Appointment Policies

City Council could have 2-2 tie until Julie Palakovich Carr’s seat is filled

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From left, Rockville City Council members Beryl Feinberg, Mark Pierzchala, Julie Palakovich Carr and Virginia Onley

Dan Schere

The Rockville City Council has approved new rules for filling vacancies on the City Council after debating whether prospective candidates would be interviewed privately by councilmembers.

Changes will be made to the city code to define when a vacancy is filled by a special election and when the mayor and council can fill an empty seat.

The five-member council today is losing Julie Palakovich Carr, who is being sworn in as the newest delegate in the Maryland General Assembly representing District 17, which includes Rockville and Gaithersburg.

The council plans to appoint someone to fill the seat for the remainder of Palakovich Carr’s term, which ends in November, when the next citywide election is scheduled.

Under changes to the election laws, the mayor and council would find a successor to fill an unexpired term if it was less than a year before the next city election.

The last vacancy in the city of 68,000 was in 1984, when Mayor John R. Freeland resigned and Viola Hovsepian was appointed to replace him.

Under the new rules, adopted unanimously, a special election would have to be held a minimum of 105 days and a maximum of 150 days after a vacancy.

The council also agreed to hold a runoff no more than 60 days after the special election in the event of a tie. Some council members suggested holding a tiebreaking coin flip, as was done in an election in Virginia last year, but the idea was voted down.

In cases where the mayor and council appoint someone to fill a vacancy, the council decided on that the appointment must be made within 75 days of the vacancy, and residents will have 30 days to apply.

The city holds nonpartisan elections every four years.

The council discussed changes at a Monday night meeting, where one point of contention was whether to hold interviews with applicants in public or closed session, and whether all of the interviewees should appear before the council in one or multiple sessions.

Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton raised the possibility of limiting the number of applicants to five, as is done in Gaithersburg.

“What if we have 20 applicants who apply?” she said.

Newton also said she favored holding the interviews in closed session, so as not to give candidates who interview after others an advantage, since they could hear comments made in previous interviews.

Council member Beryl Feinberg agreed, noting that Gaithersburg and Hagerstown both hold their interviews for vacancies in closed session.

Council member Mark Pierzchala disagreed, arguing that the interview process should be transparent, and that the four remaining council members were capable of “discerning who’s qualified and who’s not.”

“If we have 20 or 30 applicants, so what? Bring’em on,” he said.

The council members agreed to hold the interviews in one session, with Newton dissenting.

“Every once in a while we have to be willing to learn from others [city governments] and not chart our own course,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com

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