Shaneka Henson is thinking about being the next state senator from Annapolis. Dana Jones is, too.

Ellie Tierney is leaving the City Council early — or maybe she isn’t.

The Anne Arundel register of wills resigned after being convicted of misconduct, and her replacement was picked in a virtual secret vote.

It is a season of replacements in Annapolis, with political dominoes deeply lined up for a chain-reaction fall. As many as six political vacancies in Annapolis could be filled by early next year.

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And they all have this in common — the vacancies have or will be filled through appointments by small, sometimes obscure groups, not by voters in special elections.

“We should be more transparent about all these appointments,” said state Sen. Clarence Lam, a Howard County lawmaker who’s working to change the process of legislative appointments. “The basics should be a public notice showing where to submit an application. The applications should be public. There should be a public meeting, and the votes should be public.”

Here’s how the dominoes are lining up right now.

Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth speaks to a crowd of supporters and campaign volunteers after taking a significant lead in the Democratic primary race for the 3rd Congressional District.
Maryland state Sen. Sarah Elfreth speaks to a crowd of supporters and campaign volunteers after taking a significant lead in the Democratic primary race for the 3rd Congressional District. She went on to win and is now heavily favored to win the seat in the November general election. (Brenda Wintrode)

State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat from Annapolis, is favored to win the 3rd District seat in Congress by a wide margin over Republican Robert Steinberger of Arnold.

Both Henson and Jones, delegates who share District 30 with Elfreth, say they would seek an appointment to fill the remaining two years of Elfreth’s term.

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Under Maryland law, the job of filling a vacant seat in the legislature falls to the departing member’s political party. In Elfreth’s case, that would be the Anne Arundel Democratic Central Committee.

If the committee picks Henson or Jones — it would be difficult to reject two popular lawmakers with distinct constituencies — it would then have to fill the opening created in the House of Delegates. Among those already thinking about applying is Annapolis Alderman Brooks Schandelmeier.

“I have yet to make a final decision,” he said. “I would say, probably.”

That, in turn, would create an opening on the City Council. Unlike the state, the city requires a special election when an opening arises more than 16 months before the next municipal election. That’s November 2025, well within the cutoff date.

Josh Falk, chair of the Annapolis central committee, said his panel is preparing for a possible replacement, but not of Schandelmeier. Alderwoman Elly Tierney announced her resignation last month after her husband retired, with an effective date in July. But now she is signaling a probable delay tied to personal reasons.

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Then there is Alderman DaJuan Gay, who won Henson’s old seat on the council in a special election. He has often discussed leaving the council, but worries about the cost of a special election. Now that the 16-month threshold is about to pass, he might still follow through.

“We are putting together a process that is open and will replace any vacancy,” Falk said.

Appointments in the court system are even more bewildering.

Erica Griswold, the disgraced register of wills, submitted her resignation this month after pleading guilty to misconduct. She was charged after depositing a $6,645 check tied to an estate in her own account. The county Orphans Court, a three-judge panel that supervises the management of estates, voted to replace her with the register’s longtime auditor, Jasmine Jackson.

On the advice of the Attorney General’s Office, there was no public notice of Griswold’s resignation or the replacement process. This is a small branch of the law, so it’s no surprise at least 10 estate attorneys expressed interest after Griswold’s conviction.

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Assistant Attorney General Kevin Cox’s office suggested the court didn’t have the staff to vet them. As far as I can tell, the vote was held in secret.

While the register is technically the clerk of the Orphans’ Court, in practice, the office makes most decisions on matters before the court. The register’s office staff, most of whom were hired by Griswold’s predecessor, recommended Jackson.

Judges said they expressed reservations but didn’t feel like they had a choice.

“I think that all of these special appointments are problematic,” Orphans’ Court Judge David Duba said.

Erica Griswold takes the oath of office as Anne Arundel County register of wills in December 2022. In January, she was indicted on charges that she stole $6,645 intended to cover fees from an estate overseen by her office.
Erica Griswold takes the oath of office as Anne Arundel County register of wills in December 2022. The following June, she resigned after pleading guilty to depositing $6,645 intended to cover fees from an estate into her own account. (Courtesy photo)

Appointments are complicated by the fact that each branch of government — as well as local and state jurisdictions — has its own rules.

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Circuit and appeals court judges are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the Senate and then go before voters in the next election year. Two are on the ballot this fall, facing one challenger.

District Court judges are appointed and confirmed, but never stand for election.

Baltimore City and Baltimore County central committee members from a district where a vacancy occurs get to fill it, not the full panel. If one of those members seeks the job, he or she might only have to convince one other person to win the appointment.

Some counties don’t require applications or the final vote by a central committee to be made public.

If appointment rules are obscure, appointments themselves aren’t rare. In 2019, one year into a four-year term, 20% of delegates were appointed. Thirteen state lawmakers have been appointed since the 2022 election.

The list includes both Henson and Jones, the Annapolis delegates. Henson was picked after former House Speaker Mike Busch’s death in 2019, and Jones replaced Del. Alice Cain after she resigned in 2020.

Each process was unique. The central committee voted as a whole on both appointments — giving people from Glen Burnie a say in who represents Annapolis. In Henson’s case, a forum for candidates was held 15 miles away in Gambrills. Jones was chosen in a meeting held over Zoom because of COVID.

Sixteen new members were elected to the Anne Arundel central committee in 2022, and Behler said they have been reviewing the process previous committees used. They’re looking to Montgomery County as an example, where the committee puts out a call for applications, holds a public forum in the district, and votes in public.

“We recognize there are pros and cons,” said committee chair Dylan Behler, a former aide to Elfreth. “It depends on the situation.”

Pros include speed, picking a replacement without waiting until the next election year, and diversity. Henson was the first Black woman elected to represent Annapolis in the legislature, a city where a quarter of the population is Black.

“When we look at the vacancies that have occurred, the process of appointment has resulted in a lot of diversity,” she said.

Cons may include the appearance of inside politics. Henson said she is talking to committee members about the criteria they’ll use to pick a successor — and is confident she would be the best choice.

Jones says she is fielding expressions of support, but won’t focus on the pick until after November. She’s actively supporting Elfreth’s bid for Congress, while Henson backed a rival in the primary.

“Let me be clear,” Jones said. “I have a state senator, and her name is Sarah Elfreth.”

State Sen. Clarence Lam speaks during the Howard County AAPI Festival at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods on May 11, 2024. He favors changing the way legislative vacancies are filled. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

It can be equally contentious in Annapolis, where the Republican central committee has complained that Tierney, the alderwoman, timed her resignation to avoid a special election. Tierney denies it.

Maybe there is a way to guarantee a fair outcome, no matter where the opening occurs.

Lam, who hadn’t considered the way the Orphans’ Court voted or City Council openings in Annapolis, said transparency and accountability should be the basics for any appointment.

Yet even those looking to enter the appointment process see its drawbacks.

“Look at my appointment,” said Schandelmeier, who was appointed to the council in 2020 after two contentious, split votes. “I’d have rather campaigned for the office on my own.”