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Commissioners Grapple with Vacancy Procedures

Scott Zuke

(3/6) Emmitsburg's Board of Commissioners accepted a recommendation from Mayor Don Briggs at their meeting on March 4 to keep the Council's leadership roles largely unchanged after the appointment of Jim Hoover to the Board last month. The Board unanimously approved a motion to name Tim O'Donnell as president, and to make Hoover vice president. Hoover will also serve as the town's official representative to the Maryland Municipal League (MML). Commissioner Cliff Sweeney will continue to serve as treasurer, and all other committee assignments will remain the same.

Commissioner Patrick Joy called the recommendation the "least disruptive" option since the Board reorganized its leadership and committee assignments only a few months ago.

Hoover was appointed to the Council in February to fill a vacancy after former Board President Glenn Blanchard resigned. At a special meeting on February 11, the Commissioners debated over whether they were mandated to appoint a replacement by the town charter, and if so, how and how quickly they must do so. After more than an hour of discussion that came close to ending in an impasse, the Board suddenly shifted in favor of appointing Hoover, although a couple members stated they were reluctant to do so.

The Council intended to address concerns over the vacancy-filling process at the March 4 meeting, but once again struggled to find a consensus view. Three options emerged during the deliberations.

The first option, initially favored by Commissioners Sweeney and Hoover, would establish a structure and timeline for the current practice of having the Board appoint a replacement. Town staff recommended a simple addition to the Charter to require that the appointment be made within 30 days of the vacancy opening.

The second, proposed by Commissioner Joy and supported by O'Donnell, would establish a process for holding a special election so that citizens could decide who should fill the vacancy. This would require changing the Town Charter, and also introduces a number of details that the Board would need to work out, such as how much time citizens should be given to campaign, and how much time is needed to hire election judges.

The third option, backed by Commissioner Chris Staiger, would leave the vacancy open until the next regular election. This plan also requires changing the Charter, and other members of the Council voiced concerns that a long term vacancy could disrupt the functioning of the Board because there would be no tie-breaker in the case of 2-2 votes.

"I dread gridlock," O'Donnell said. Staiger argued that the Board could function with four commissioners, and that even a five-member Council could be gridlocked, as it appeared to be over the issue they were presently discussing.

"I don't think it's necessarily right for us five people to pick a name out of a hat," Staiger said. "And I don't know that there's a need to go through the disruption and the cost of a special election if there's not a problem just waiting until the next general election."

As the Board seemed to coalesce in favor of Staiger's position, Commissioner Joy said he would bring back a proposal at a future meeting to change the charter to say vacancies will be filled at the next general election.

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