Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoed legislation last week that would have allowed St. Mary's County Sheriff David D. Zylak to appoint more captains and majors, a signature proposal of the sheriff's first two years in office.
In a veto message posted on the governor's Web site, Ehrlich (R) said he blocked the bill at the unanimous request of the Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners, who initially supported Zylak's plan, said a wording change in the bill would have given the sheriff too much authority over the budget.
The veto represents another setback for Zylak (D), who has squabbled with the commissioners over his budget this month and had to beat back suggestions by Commissioners President Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large) that a county police department might serve the area better.
In the case of the legislative veto, the fight is over three words Zylak inserted in the bill.
As originally proposed, the bill's wording gave authority to both the "county commissioners and the sheriff to set the number, rank and salaries of the command-level positions." In January, the commissioners deleted the words "and the sheriff" and sent the bill to the St. Mary's delegation with their blessing.
But, without telling the commissioners, Zylak asked Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's) to reinsert "and the sheriff." The bill passed the General Assembly easily.
When the commissioners learned about the wording change in April, well after the bill's passage, they sent a letter to Ehrlich asking him to veto it. They said the bill gives the sheriff "power to affect the budget," according to the letter.
Commissioner Thomas A. Mattingly Sr. (D-Leonardtown) said the bill, as it was passed, could forbid the commissioners to turn down a request for new commanders.
"There was some concern by the county attorney that it gave some legislative power to the sheriff," Mattingly said.
Ehrlich agreed. "There should be no confusion on this matter," Ehrlich said. "This bill infringes on their legislative prerogative."
Zylak and Bohanan countered that the wording just ensured that the sheriff had a voice in what happened with his budget.
"It just codifies a fact," Zylak said. "It gives the sheriff a place at the table."
An opinion from the Maryland Attorney General's Office, written May 17, agreed with the sheriff. Assistant Attorney General Bonnie A. Kirkland wrote that the bill would give the sheriff the power to appoint commanders to captain or major but not the power to fund them. Funding decisions would remain with the commissioners, Kirkland wrote.
She noted that it was "quite normal" for laws to specify that agencies such as sheriff's departments have a say in budget decisions.
Bohanan suggested that the Republican-led county commissioners were blocking Zylak's plans for partisan reasons.
"There's no legislative or policy reason to veto this," Bohanan said. "There's got to be something else."
Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R-Golden Beach) countered that all five commissioners, including Democrats Mattingly and Daniel H. Raley (Great Mills), requested Ehrlich's veto.
Of the recent battles between Zylak and the commissioners, Jarboe said the sheriff needs to "learn to live within his means."
The sheriff has asked for double-digit percentage increases in his budget this year, but the commissioners are poised next week to approve only a 6.3 percent raise. The increase would bring the sheriff's budget to $18.3 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Zylak says he needs more money to fight a recent increase in crime and to give deputies more incentive to stay with the department.
Commissioners counter that increases in the law enforcement budget have far outpaced growth in education spending.
The fight over the bill's wording is a budget issue, not a partisan one, Jarboe said.
"If we have somebody else setting the number of captains and majors, it becomes an issue," Jarboe said. "We can't go back to the taxpayers and say we have to raise your property taxes by so much because the sheriff needs two new captains."
Zylak has one captain and no majors. Captains and majors are appointees who can be fired at any time for any reason.
Zylak said he wanted the opportunity to promote deputies who have views similar to his own. He said he came into office with a command staff of lieutenants promoted by a previous sheriff.
"There are certain differings of opinions at the command level," Zylak said.
Zylak said the issue was moot for now.
"I don't think they would have given me any funding for a captain anyway," he said.