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Baltimore County attorney: Bevins violated the charter but can keep her council seat.

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Baltimore County Councilwoman Cathy Bevins. Credit: Baltimore County

A long-awaited legal opinion by Baltimore County Attorney James Benjamin finds that sixth district Councilwoman Cathy Bevins violated the county charter when she briefly moved out of her district last summer.

Although the county charter states a council member has to leave office if they move out of their district, Benjamin wrote, “there does not appear to be legal precedent to require the immediate removal of Councilwoman Bevins.”

Benjamin cites a similar situation in the 1960s, when second district councilman Milton (“Mickey”) H. Miller moved out of his district. He remained in office.

“Importantly, it seems the County Council allowed Mr. Miller to stay on the Council, but Mr. Miller agreed not to run again,” wrote Benjamin.

Bevins announced last month that she will not seek a fourth term this year. She said at the time her residency mistake had nothing to do with that decision.

Benjamin also found evidence in notes taken during the writing of the county charter in 1956 that the main point of the residency requirement is to make sure the county’s seven council districts are represented.

Bevins continued her day-to-day work for residents of the sixth district during the time she lived in an adjoining district.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, who like Bevins is a Democrat, said that is a critical point.

“There’s a difference between a person who moves out of the district and moves to Alaska never to be seen again, of course you would want that person to resign or vacate the seat so you can replace him, versus somebody in Cathy’s case who moved out, never stopped doing their job, and then moved right back in,” Jones said.

Bevins did not respond to requests for comment.

Benjamin’s opinion also dives into the meaning of the word “forthwith.”

The charter states when a council member moves out of the district, “his office shall be forthwith vacated.” Benjamin writes that can mean “with no excuse for delay” or “that the act is to be done within a reasonable time.”

Benjamin now puts the ball in the County Council’s court.

He wrote “it may be helpful” for the council or a future charter commission to decide whether the document needs to be amended “to specify who can declare a vacancy if a Councilmember moves from their councilmanic district and to determine who can remove a Councilmember from office if a vacancy has been found to exist due to the Councilmember moving from their councilmanic district.”

Benjamin further writes that under the charter, “the County Executive cannot make these calls.”

Chairman Jones disagrees with Benjamin’s view on amending the charter.

“I see beauty in the charter,” Jones said. “I don’t see it as being vague or some omission.

“There’s power and there’s no error here,” Jones said. “There’s power in the fact that when the citizens elect somebody, only the citizens can get rid of them.

“You don’t want to get into the situation where your colleagues or some other entity has the power to remove you from office.”

Bevins said she checked with the county council’s legal counsel, who incorrectly told her that under the charter she could move out of the sixth district and keep her seat. Once she realized that was not the case, she moved back into the sixth.

Bevins’ move triggered a complaint to the county inspector general, who also recommended that the county council consider updating the charter to include a provision on enforcing a violation of council residency.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski requested opinions both from the county attorney and Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who declined to get involved, saying it was a local issue.

With Bevins not running for reelection, six people so far have filed to run for the sixth district seat, five Democrats and one Republican.

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