Fitzger­ald must go

Our view: Howard County of­fi­cials are right to ex­plore im­peach­ment for a sher­iff who doesn’t have the de­cency to quit

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

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.

KIM HAIRSTON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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