Fitzgerald must go
Our view: Howard County officials are right to explore impeachment for a sheriff who doesn’t have the decency to quit
It’s not surprising that Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald, a third-term Democrat, got it wrong last week when he finally broke his silence about a scathing report by the county’s Office of Human Rights describing his pervasive use of racist, sexist and anti-Semitic invective against his own employees. He called the report “humbling, hurtful and disappointing for all involved.” What was hurtful was not the report but his egregious treatment of his subordinates. What was humbling was the fact that Howard County voters, who usually elect sensible people to represent them, failed to notice his bigotry in any of the last three elections. And what’s beyond disappointing is his refusal to resign or even truly acknowledge the facts arrayed against him. You don’t get to call people the N-word, make jokes about watermelon and fried chicken, call a former county executive “little Kenny Jew-boy,” make disparaging remarks about women’s breasts, and then call for a high-minded discussion about the state of race relations in law enforcement. He needs to go.
To their credit, Howard’s other elected officials, current and former, Democrats and Republicans, have been uniform in their condemnation of Mr. Fitzgerald and have called en masse on him to step down. County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican whose family has a long legacy of fighting for civil rights in Howard County, went so far last week as to ask the county’s delegates and senators to explore the idea of impeachment. “I recognize that impeachment of any elected official is an extreme step, one that should not be taken in haste. But the offensive actions and behavior documented in the OHRreport are so grossly contrary to the shared values of inclusion and respect for all that we hold dear in Howard County that I see no other recourse.”
Members of the county’s Annapolis delegation have asked the Maryland attorney general’s office for advice on whether impeachment is possible, and they plan to meet to discuss next steps. The state constitution gives the House of Delegates the power to impeach office holders on a majority vote, which is more or less the equivalent of voting for an indictment. The matter then goes to trial in the Senate, which must muster a two-thirds vote for conviction and removal from office. (A separate standard calls for the automatic removal from office of an elected official who is convicted of a felony or certain misdemeanors for which the possible penalty includes jail time.)
Legislators should not take impeachment lightly, nor should the practice be used simply to oust office holders who become unpopular or who take positions others disagree with. Historically, they haven’t. For example, the General Assembly rightly killed an attempt to impeach former Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler over an opinion his office issued calling for Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states before such unions were legal here.
The current situation is not a matter of partisan politics — Mr. Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald says he won’t resign, despite a damning report alleging discrimination and harassment in his office. Fitzgerald doesn’t have defenders in either political party. He has, in a moral sense at least, rendered himself unfit to serve. The attorney general’s office is researching applicable case law to determine what standards, if any, the House must meet to bring impeachment, but most likely a key question will be whether the sheriff’s actions go beyond merely being despicable and have actually created a work environment so hostile that it impedes his ability to carry out the duties he is assigned in the state constitution and code. We expect that process to play out quickly when the General Assembly returns in January, though given Mr. Fitzgerald’s intransigence so far, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it hung up in the courts even if legislators vote to remove him.
In the meantime, the people of Howard County have the power to shame him. Mr. Fitzgerald isn’t just a “loud New Yorker,” the phrase he used to excuse (but not deny) his egregious conduct when confronted by the OHR. He is a bigot whose brazenness would make the loud NewYorker running for president blush. We don’t expect his constituents to give him a taste of his own medicine — that is distinctly not the Howard County way — but they can shun him. They can refuse to recognize him at public events. They can maintain their protests outside his office. They can keep up a stream of letters and phone calls of complaint. They can hold public discussions about the inappropriateness of his conduct. And they can set a counter-example. This week, the Choose Civility initiative of the Howard County Library is kicking off its yearlong Random Acts of Civility project. The launch party would be a great time to begin a conversation about the most civil way to make clear to Mr. Fitzgerald that behavior like his is not welcome in Howard County.