2022 | Government

Voters to decide in November whether to tweak county attorney removal process

County Council shelves another proposed measure dealing with conflicting county charter amendments

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The County Council has approved the inclusion of one proposed amendment to the county charter on the general election ballot in November, but shelved the idea of asking voters to decide whether to change the voting approval guidelines for competing charter amendment proposals.

Registered voters in the county will decide in November whether to tweak the process for the removal of the county attorney. Marc Hansen, the county attorney who retired earlier this year, suggested the proposed change, in part, to remove the appearance of bias toward one branch of government, according to a letter Hansen sent to the council.

Currently under the county charter, the county executive appoints the county attorney, and then the County Council can approve the appointment in a majority vote. The charter does not currently include the council if the county executive decided to remove the county attorney.

Under the proposed charter amendment, the council or executive could remove the county attorney through defined processes, which would create more of a balance of power between branches of government, according to Hansen. 

For example, under one scenario, if the county executive chooses to fire the county attorney, then the executive must provide notice to the council within three days. The council would be required to approve the firing by a majority vote and would have 30 days to do so after receiving the notice. If the council did not act within 30 days, then the county attorney would not be removed.

In another scenario, the council could choose to remove the county attorney via a supermajority vote, or a vote of at least two-thirds of all members (in an 11-member council, this means eight members would need to vote to remove). The council would then be required to provide notice to the county executive within three days of its decision. The executive then would have 15 days to choose whether to remove the attorney — and if the executive doesn’t act, the attorney would remain in the post.

The county attorney would be on paid leave in both situations until a final decision is made.

Council members chose not to vote Tuesday on whether to include on the November ballot another proposed charter amendment, which aimed to solve a dilemma created by proposed amendments that conflict with each other.

An example of this is when two proposed charter amendments were placed on the 2020 general election ballot. Voters approved a measure to increase the number of council members from seven to 11. The amendment also increased the number of council districts from five to seven while retaining four at-large seats.

Voters did not approve a second ballot measure that would have kept the council at nine members and would have removed the four at-large seats, instead creating nine council districts.

Currently, if competing charter amendments like those on the 2020 general election ballot are both approved by more than 50% of voters, then both fail. Under the proposed charter amendment, the proposed measure that receives the highest percentage of voter approval would be implemented.

Some council members said during Tuesday’s meeting that they weren’t ready to add the proposed amendment to the ballot without further review. Council Member Andrew Friedson of Bethesda, who represents District 1, said more discussion would be “helpful.”

“I think we’ll have an opportunity again in two years where frankly there would be higher voter turnout, I would expect, in a presidential election, which may be a better opportunity to understand what the will of the voters would be,” he said. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com