Despite the overwhelming objection of spectators at Tuesday's meeting, the Anne Arundel County Council sided with the state's decision to remove the county's health officer from her leadership role.
More than 100 friends and supporters of former county health officer Angela M. Wakhweya attended the meeting on a frigid Tuesday evening—the largest attendance since the body discussed comprehensive rezoning in 2011.
Most comments ended in applause. One supporter asked audience members to stand if they were there for Wakhweya—nearly the entire room stood.
Nevertheless, council members voted 4-2-1 to remove Wakhweya. Councilman Jamie Benoit (D-4th District) of Crownsville abstained, and Councilmen Chris Trumbauer (D-6th District) of Annapolis and Peter Smith (D-1st District) of Severn voted against the measure.
Two weeks earlier, the council was asked to support Wakhweya's removal at the request of Joshua Sharfstein, the state Secretary of Mental Health and Hygiene. No reason was given for the request, other than that the department had lost confidence in her ability to lead.
At the time, council members complained about the lack of information on the issue. But after two weeks of investigation, some members agreed with the state's determination, with a compromise being reached that she be given 60 days of paid leave, and a chance to seek another job within the state.
Councilman John Grasso (R-2nd District) of Glen Burnie said that while Wakhweya was clearly a good person, her role as a leader within the department wasn't working out.
"We put her into the trenches, and she stumbled along, and no one helped her out, and we've got the situation we've got today," Grasso said.
Councilman Smith was Wakhweya's most vocal supporter on the council. He said the county administration and the state were at fault for not guiding Wakhweya through a treacherous leadership role within the department.
Simply removing Wakhweya from the position wouldn't fix the issue in the long run, Smith said.
"She was placed in a minefield. If we want to fix the issue, let's remove the mines," Smith said.
Smith conducted interviews with health department employees. He said Wakhweya's "strong-willed approach" to leadership drove a wedge between her and others.
"This path unfortunately created friction which ultimately tore the fabric of cohesiveness within the department," Smith said.
Though there were allegations of racial tension in the department throughout testimony from Wakhweya's supporters, Smith said he did not find evidence of that in his investigation. Council Chairman Jerry Walker (R-7th District) of Gambrills agreed, saying he did not believe discrimination was the reason the state sought her removal.
Councilman Dick Ladd (R-5th District) of Broadneck said there appeared to be a problem within the health department, and new leadership may root it out.
"I personally believe that the best way forward for the Department of Health and the county is to have new leadership to deal with the situation—whatever it is—inside the department that caused the situation to develop into what it is today," Ladd said.
Councilman Derek Fink (R-3rd District) of Pasadena had previously said he would vote against Wakhweya's removal unless someone from the state pointed out the reasons for the request. However, no one from the state testified.
Wakhweya's attorney, Levi Zaslow, said he believes racial undertones were at the heart of the issue. He told a The Capital Gazette reporter that they would be seeking further race-related action.