In a move that would clear the way for the Anne Arundel County Council to replace prison-bound Councilman Daryl D. Jones, a colleague plans to introduce legislation Monday that, if approved by a majority, would declare the Democratic lawmaker's seat vacant.
Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat and a friend of Jones', announced his plans in an email to his council colleagues earlier this week.
In an emailed statement early Saturday morning, Benoit said Jones' status on the council has "greatly distracted" from "the very important business of governing and policymaking. I am prepared to put this issue to rest — ready to get an answer on whether Mr. Jones' seat will be vacated when he begins his five month term in custody — and ready to move on."
He added, "Given my personal and professional relationship with Mr. Jones, this is very difficult for me."
Jones, a Severn Democrat who has been mum on his plans since he was sentenced last month to five months in federal prison for failing to file tax returns, did not return a message seeking comment Saturday. It's unclear whether Jones will seek legal clarification through the court system on whether the council can declare his seat vacant.
Benoit plans to introduce the measure as an emergency ordinance — requiring five votes for passage. Non-emergency legislation requires only a majority of the seven-member council.
Benoit's ordinance cites sections of the county charter requiring each member of the council to reside in their district during their term, and if they fail to do so, their seat will be deemed vacant. The ordinance also cites the legal opinion of the county attorney, Jonathan A. Hodgson — an opinion that Benoit had recently criticized.
The county charter does not expressly call for a member of the council convicted of a crime or sentenced to incarceration to be removed, so Jones, a defense attorney and a tavern owner, has been weighing whether he would resign or stay on the council since he was sentenced for failing to file nearly three dozen personal and business tax returns over a six-year period.
Hodgson, who had advised the council that they could declare Jones' seat vacant and appoint a replacement in a Dec. 1 legal opinion, said Benoit's measure would not preclude another member of the council from introducing similar non-emergency legislation. If the council votes to declare Jones' seat vacant, the council would have 30 days to appoint a replacement, who is required to live in the district and be of the same party.
"It's Mr. Benoit's prerogative to present this to the council as an emergency ordinance," said Hodgson, who emailed to the council a 13-page legal opinion Friday, reiterating that the council has the authority to remove Jones. "In my view, it's not necessary, but I don't object to it. A resolution would also have the force of law and be adequate."
In his statement, Benoit said although he still disagrees with Hodgson's legal opinion, he was anxious to settle the matter.
"I continue to have serious doubts about the advice rendered to us by the county attorney as it runs counter to the veritable mountain of case law that suggests Mr. Jones will, in fact, continue to be a 'resident' of the first councilmanic district during his short period of incarceration," said Benoit. "In light of the county attorney's very emphatic conclusions, I am nonetheless moving this bill in hopes that these important legal questions can be resolved quickly and concretely."
Already, two of the four Republicans on the council — Councilman John J. Grasso and Councilman Richard B. "Dick" Ladd — have said Jones should resign.
Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican, said Friday that he would support Benoit's legislation — though he questioned his motives. He also said if Benoit's ordinance fails to pass, he has already directed the county's Office of Law to produce a resolution declaring Jones' seat vacant, which would only require four votes for passage.
"There's always a curve ball behind whatever Jamie Benoit does," said Grasso. "My thinking is, he'll possibly support the bill, and then he'll bail out on the bill when it's time to vote."
Grasso added, "We're going to see if the council comes together and does the right thing for the people. Depending on the outcome of that, then I'll move with what I need to do."
In an email, Benoit rejected Grasso's allegation. Benoit said that a resolution would not suffice and he chose emergency legislation because of the timeline of events. Jones must report to prison to begin his sentence Jan. 23. If passed, emergency legislation is in effect immediately. Non-emergency legislation takes effect 45 days from when it passes.
In an interview Friday, Council Chairman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican, said he would support Benoit's ordinance.
"I don't know why we have it as emergency legislation — all that does is raise the threshold for it to pass," said Fink. "Daryl's going to be out for quite some time. He's not going to be able to represent his people. I do take an issue with the fact that he will continue to receive a check from the taxpayers while he's sitting away in federal jail."
Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, said Saturday that he was unsure if he would support Benoit's ordinance.
"I don't think Daryl — at least not to me — has said decisively what he intends to do," said Trumbauer. "So I'm not sure how to react until we learn definitely what his intentions are. I think that the ordinance will force Daryl to make a decision. He could possibly challenge it, so we'll see what happens."