LEXINGTON PARK, Md. – The Lexington Park Library was packed last week for the first of three primary debates that are being held in St. Mary’s County by the League of Women Voters and the NAACP.
While most of the crowd appeared to have come out to either see Republicans Richard Fritz and Jaymi Sterling square off for State’s Attorney or watch Todd Fleenor, Steve Hall, and John O’Connor compete for the Republican nod to be the county’s next sheriff, the evening also featured discussions between candidates running to be Clerk of the Circuit Court and Judge of the Orphan’s Court.
The evening started with incumbent Debbie Mills Burch going back and forth with challenger Faye Farrell-Wheeler, discussing how they would change the office, how they will try to create a more friendly work environment, and what challenges they may encounter.
“One of the most challenging things I see is the day-to-day changing of policies and procedures, not only through rules and laws and regulations through the state of Maryland but also through Maryland judiciary,” Burch said. “And making sure that I enforce those rules and laws and they are carried out as far as the processing of paperwork and cases and so forth in the courts.”
Farrell-Wheeler faced some tough questions, including what she would do differently in the position, and why she changed her party affiliation to run in the Republican Primary Election.
“I am a very midline candidate,” Farrell-Wheeler said. “Not swaying too far to the left or to the right, and at this point, I feel like I lean more towards the Republican side, and thankfully the position for which I run is a nonpartisan position and does not require you to be a certain party.”
Sterling and Fritz were the second group of candidates to take the stage on the evening.
Both candidates were subjected to tough, seemingly-targeted questions from the audience. One early question asked how much trial experience each candidate had, a point Fritz has discussed heavily throughout his campaign.
“I’ve had so many jury trials, at some point in time, you try to figure out the number, you come up with the number. Like I say, eight years ago I said 350. Certainly I have had more than that,” Fritz said in his answer. “Every form of evidence that there is: DNA, fingerprints, hair and fiber, you name it. All of those have been involved in all my cases.”
Sterling responded, noting that a significant amount of her trial experience was earned outside of the county, citing a lack of trials held in St. Mary’s County during her time there.
“So I have been a prosecutor for 14 years, and I have prosecuted cases in Frederick County for about 2.5 years, and then in St. Mary’s County for about 10 years, and then in Anne Arundel for about the last two…” Sterling said. “When I was in St. Mary’s County, the entire office had at max 10 jury trials a year, that means all of us prosecutors, all 13 of us. So I tried to do the math and I had the majority of them in Frederick County, before I came to St. Mary’s, because we had so few in St. Mary’s. But I had about 25-40 jury trials on my own, and then I tried some cases with colleagues including Mr. Fritz, and I would estimate about 50-60 of those. Those include homicide trials…”
Both were asked about their financial disclosures which were filed with the Maryland Board of Elections the day before the debate, with the question angled at how much each candidate raised locally.
“What benefit does someone outside the county have to give me money?” Sterling asked in response to the question. “What it does show is that a lot of these people are police officers, they are other prosecutors, they are my friends from college, my friends from law school. That means so much to me, that my colleagues who I worked with in other prosecuting offices, other police officers that I work with, and even the ones I currently work with are donating money to me. They don’t live in the county, it is because they know how much of a great job I’m going to do, and they want to support me and bring me back to doing the job I love in my home county.”
Fritz, who was outraised just by Sterling’s local donors, noted where he believes the money is coming from.
“My opponent has raised over $250,000. I’ve never heard of such an amount being raised by any local candidate for any local office.” Fritz said. “I think what we have here is daddy is raising money for her, through his various campaign donors.”
Fritz also faced tough questions surrounding a trip his office took to Ocean City when the pandemic was ongoing, along with his involvement in a crime that took place on election day in 1998 that went to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The case noted involved all copies of the St. Mary’s Today newspaper being bought out after a salacious headline was run on the front page, which has since been cited in some First Amendment-related cases across the country.
“Every single newspaper was purchased,” Fritz explained. “I am not aware of anything that says you can’t buy one newspaper, you can’t buy 20 newspapers. So, that’s an explanation.”
The crowd quickly pivoted to the three-man primary race for sheriff. Candidates fielded many questions from potential conflicts of interest, to their thoughts on red flag laws, all the way down to when they made their most recent arrest.
However, some of the more interesting discussions came from some of the candidate’s ideas to bring change, and reduce crime in the county.
One of O’Connor’s goals early in his tenure as sheriff he said would be to move patrol operations into Lexington Park and take a new approach to the budget process for the whole department.
“We need to look at focusing on the core needs for the sheriff’s department, which is getting the staffing to where it needs to be, making sure that retention is there,” O’Connor explained. “My approach to the budget is entirely different with pure necessities, versus just some wants that might be in there.”
Hall alluded to several fresh ideas he would like to bring to the position including a new mentoring program, along with adding supervisor-specific meetings to address each part of the department’s needs.
“I want to look at instituting a mentoring program for new deputies to come in and do a career path program, where somebody that has taken a similar path, they want to be a detective, they want to be promoted, you put them in that mentoring program. I think that is where we have lacked a lot,” Hall said.
Fleenor took the forum as an opportunity to discuss some of his problems with the way the job is currently done while emphasizing what he’d like to focus on. His campaign slogan, “tougher on crime,” got some elaboration after he was asked what it entailed.
“I believe that we shouldn’t be kinder and gentler, and we shouldn’t have hug-a-thug programs,” Fleenor said. “I believe if you are a criminal, you should be in jail… Criminals should not have any rights, that’s what tough on crime means.”
The last group to speak was those candidates vying for one of three seats on the St. Mary’s County Orphan’s Court. All the candidates retained a common theme: make sure that you have a will in place to ensure a smooth transition of your belongings in the event of a disaster.
One notable moment of this discussion came when Chief Judge Michael White gave his first public statement since being named in a federal civil complaint earlier this year. Watch his statement below:
White disputes several reports, including one first confirmed by TheBayNet.com noting a criminal complaint that was filed against him.
The next forum is taking place at the Lexington Park Library on June 22 at 5:30 p.m.
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