Announcing a New Series: a Deep Dive Into the Court Filings in Stewart et al. v Commissioners

TLR is taking on a special project outside of its usual planning and development coverage because I believe the topic is of unusual importance to all Charles County residents who care about responsible governance, and as such requires extra scrutiny.

On December 13 last year, the first open session of the new Board of Charles County Commissioners devolved almost immediately into an ugly confrontation in which District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) and District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D) accused Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) of engineering a last-minute closed session during which the other three commissioners intended to vote to fire County Administrator Mark Belton — which is certainly the prerogative of the county commissioners, except, as Bowling revealed, one of those three commissioners had been barred from engaging in any personnel actions involving the county administrator. Indeed, the commissioner in question was prohibited from even speaking to the county administrator.

Bowling and Stewart went on to reveal some of the actions leading up to this remarkable situation, all of which had taken place outside of public scrutiny beginning in 2019: a formal complaint filed by Belton accusing the unnamed commissioner of “multiple vitriolic oral and written assaults” of a racial nature (Belton is white); a counterclaim filed by the commissioner against Belton; and an investigation conducted by outside counsel that not only vindicated Belton, but also concluded that the commissioner’s actions had “exposed the county to a serious risk of liability.”

You can watch the full proceedings of the meeting here. I also encourage you to read the Maryland Independent’s coverage of the open session and the events leading up to it here, here, and here (subscription required).

During the closed session that followed, all parties agreed that Bowling and Stewart would be allowed to file a motion in Charles County Circuit Court for a declaratory judgment to determine the commissioners’ authority to vote on employment actions related to County Administrator Belton. The case, filed on December 30, is Amanda Stewart, et al. vs. The Charles County Board of County Commissioners, et al. (case # C-08-CV-23-000002), which, for brevity’s sake, I’ll refer to as Stewart et al. v Commissioners.

As the case proceeds, TLR is going to take a deep dive into the court filings: scrutinizing the arguments and counter-arguments, providing analysis and context, and exploring some of the possible outcomes and impacts this case could have on policy and politics in Charles County once the dust settles. With luck, I might even be able to interview some of the litigants, or more likely their counsel. I have many questions, and I’m sure as the case proceeds I’ll have many more.

This deep dive is intended to complement the good work being done by the Maryland Independent and other local journalists who are covering the story as it unfolds. Given the luxury of unlimited space and no deadline pressure, I’m hoping that TLR can provide some value-added analysis that will help readers gain a deeper understanding of this complex, fast-moving, and important story.

I know this is outside the normal realm of coverage for TLR, so if you’re not interested in following this series, I certainly understand; feel free to unsubscribe until the series is done. But I hope you will consider sticking with me because I think you’ll find it to be a worthwhile trip.

— Paul