The Howard County Office of Human Rights (OHR) released a 48-page report on Sept. 22 investigating more than five years of alleged discrimination, abuse and intimidation of personnel by Howard County Sheriff James Fitzgerald (D), who is currently in his third term of office.
In response to the report, the county executive, county council, county delegation and county register of wills called for Fitzgerald’s immediate resignation.
“The report details truly unacceptable and intolerable behavior by Sheriff James Fitzgerald,” read a release issued by the council. “These findings are especially upsetting at a time when we face a national crisis of confidence in law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities.”
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman issued a joint statement signed by former County Executives Ken Ulman, Jim Robey and Ed Cochran (Democrat Liz Bobo was traveling and unavailable to sign the document).
One day later, approximately 24 citizens staged a demonstration outside the courthouse, albeit several hours after courthouse workers had left for the day.
Demonstrators continued their vigil in the courthouse parking lot from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. beginning on Sept. 26, demanding Fitzgerald’s resignation.
According to the OHR report, Fitzgerald frequently directed racially-charged language against African Americans, disparaged women and allegedly harassed former Lt. Charles Gable to the point Gable felt he had no choice but to leave his job.
Multiple attempts to contact Fitzgerald for comment and solicit his response to the report were unsuccessful and calls were not returned.
The report is not the only scrutiny the sheriff faces. John McMahon, the Republican runner-up in the 2014 Sheriff’s race, filed a civil complaint against Fitzgerald in April, challenging Fitzgerald’s legal eligibility for the position and questioning whether he actually took the oath of office after the election.
“A whistleblower alerted me that James Fitzgerald did not take the oath of office within 30 days from the date of commission, as required by the Maryland Constitution,” McMahon said, an action that constitutes denial of the office. “If that’s actually the case, as the runner-up I should be allowed to take the oath and be installed as sheriff.”
Moreover, McMahon said he believes Fitzgerald is not legally eligible for the position because he filed a Homestead Tax Credit for a home in Ocean City, identifying it as his primary residence. The Howard County address listed on Fitzgerald’s 2014 candidacy application is a condominium unit not owned by Fitzgerald, according to the State Department of Assessments and Taxation’s real property website.
User postings on the online Baltimore Sun Talk Forums website dating from 2009 regarding the Sheriff’s use of an electric car discuss the addresses Fitzgerald used when applying for candidacy in earlier elections, alleging he used his daughter’s address to fulfill candidacy requirements. They also allege he misused a county vehicle to drive back and forth to his Ocean City home on weekends.
If Fitzgerald does not resign, Howard County residents are in for a civics lesson. It appears, according to the state Constitution, that elected officials cannot be recalled. They can, however, be removed from office by the legislature, but only if convicted of a felony or of a misdemeanor related to the duties of office and that is punishable by a jail sentence.
At the county council legislative hearing in September, Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Larry Twele requested that the council endorse a $300,000 Maryland Department of Commerce conditional loan that will allow Iron World Manufacturing to expand operations at its headquarters along Route 1 in North Laurel.
Council Chair Calvin Ball (D-Dist. 2) introduced a resolution calling on the county’s Environmental Sustainability Board to expand the scope of its review of studies regarding mold in Howard County public schools.
Ball also introduced legislation authorizing the Howard County Office of Law to take legal action to enforce the financial audit of the Howard County Public School System as mandated by an earlier council resolution.
He noted that the Board of Education and the school system had begun providing “significant amounts of documents” to the auditor’s office. However, at a Sept. 26 work session, County Auditor Craig Glendenning reported that the school system continued to stonewall the audit process.
“We are in a position of requiring space, some access to systems and employees, and at this point we’ve been told there will be no space available to do an audit and we will not have access to any employees,” Glendenning said. “Our last request was made Sept. 15 and we have not had a response.”
Testifying in favor of the legislation, Board of Education candidate Vicky Cutroneo, of Woodbine, said she was “sad that we have to keep coming here and testifying for more overview of the school system in every regard.”
Christina Delmont-Small, of Ellicott City, also a Board of Education candidate, said the council should consider the legislation “as an insurance policy: You have it hoping that you won’t need it, but if you need it, it will be there.”
The most contentious current legislation under consideration is a bill that would allow commercial solar facilities as a conditional use on the county’s Agricultural Preservation Program parcels, which are zoned RR and RC.
Howard County Farm Bureau President Howie Feaga spoke in favor of the legislation. “It gives the farmer some sustainability in these times of never knowing whether you’re going to dry up or drown,” Feaga said. “It needs to be spread out so it works well and it’s not going to be so detrimental to the eye.”
George Brown, of Mount Airy and owner of Nixon’s Farm — the site of the county’s first commercial solar development — requested that his property be granted retroactive access to preservation options out of fairness. “The solar farm is not a permanent alteration, the panels can be removed. The land is still the land.”
Several citizens opposed the legislation, including Dan O’Leary, who represented the Greater Highlands Crossroads Association. “We think it’s important that you examine the costs involved of pursuing this proposition,” he said, which he categorized as loss of productive farmland and loss of the rural agricultural character of the west.
Howard County Citizens Association Board Member Susan Garber, of Savage, agreed. “Commercial solar facilities are not agriculture, therefore any land populated with solar facilities should lose the reduced Agricultural Property tax rate,” she said, contending that agriculture would cease on the acreage dedicated to solar panels.
Ellicott City resident and farmer Natalie Ziegler, however, argued that farming is both a commercial and an [agricultural] activity. “I can’t imagine [commercial] just because I put in 20 or 30 acres of solar; that’s a marvelous backup for the years when commodity prices are horrible, she said.”