Despite the presence of an overflow crowd offering support, the County council voted to affirm the ouster of health officer Angela S. Wakhweya, the first African-American to hold the job in the history of the county department.
After being ousted from her position as Anne Arundel County health officer, Dr. Angela S. Wakhweya maintained in a statement issued Wednesday that she had, "done nothing illegal, nothing unethical, nothing unsafe, nothing immoral and nothing fraudulent."
Nevertheless, a day earlier, at a sometimes emotional meeting that drew a standing-room-only crowd, the Anne Arundel County Council voted to affirm the dismissal of Wakhweya, the first African-American to hold the position in the 81-year history of the county health department.
The vote, which took place after 27 area residents took to the microphone to defend Wakhweya, was 4-2 in favor of dismissal, with one council member abstaining.
The council resolution included an amendment asserting that Wakhweya, 49, would be placed on a 60-day paid leave before her official departure and that her boss, Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Joshua M. Sharfstein, would work to find her another directorial position.
The state leveled no specific charges against Wakhweya, and no state health department officials appeared at the council meeting addressing the matter.
Questions over Wakhweya's performance first drew public attention on Jan. 3 when Sharfstein sent a letter to council members and County Executive John R. Leopold asking their "concurrence" with his recommendation that she be terminated.
The letter leveled no charges and in fact called Wakhweya "an experienced public health professional," alleging only that "the department has lost confidence that she can lead the health department effectively at this time."
Keneitheia J. Taylor, the state's director of office of equal opportunity programs, and Harold Young III, acting deputy director of human resources, were among the others who signed the letter.
When the council first took up the matter on Jan. 7, six of seven council members said they had too little information to be able to vote fairly and postponed the decision until last week. Several said they were uncomfortable that a personnel matter was being aired in public, and officials said they could not remember any similar attempt to oust a county official.
The procedure was complicated by the fact that each of Maryland's county health officials is a county representative on a state board, which makes each one both a state and a county employee. Only the state's health secretary may legally recommend the ouster of a county health official. But the county in question must confirm the action. In Anne Arundel County, that means the county executive and the county council must sign off on the recommendation.
Acting on anonymous complaints, the state health department began its own investigation into Wakhweya's performance in December. At the first council meeting, county attorney Jonathan Hodgson said those investigators assessed the case and said the council's only charge was to decide whether to back the state recommendation.
Leopold had already agreed to go along with the state's request.
But at last week's meeting, citizens rose to defend Wakhweya, a native of Uganda who now lives in Crofton. They said she had excelled in her job since she was appointed in October 2011. Several speakers mentioned her efforts to reach out to citizens and companies alike, her dedication in dealing with minority issues and AIDS and the concern she has shown for health issues affecting the county's more than 50,000 military veterans.
"Dr. Wakhweya has dedicated her life to public health issues. She has worked tirelessly on her assigned mission to protect the health of our residents here. I'm confident that no information to the contrary has ever been or ever will be presented to the city council," said Carolyn Holland of Crownsville, a clinical social worker who said she has known Wakhweya for eight years.
Several speakers said they were shocked that Wakhweya could lose her job even though she hadn't faced specific charges. Others alleged that Wakhweya's race might have played a role in the dismissal.
Her attorney, Levi S. Zaslow, had earlier distributed a letter alleging that a culture of racial insensitivity prevailed in the state's health department, and several leaders in the Anne Arundel civil rights community echoed the allegation at each meeting.
Just before the voting, though, Councilman Peter Smith, a Democrat from Severn and the council's lone African-American member, said his research turned up no evidence that race played a role in the matter.
He called Wakhweya a "consummate, dedicated professional" but added that her "determination to get things done quickly" might have antagonized some who worked with her, and that her superiors might have done better in preparing her for the administrative side of her job.
In a statement she released the next day, Wakhweya said the complaints against her were "based on a select few [people] who intend at all costs to retain control of the policy direction, messaging, personnel and budget processes of the Health Department and use them for their own personal gain."
She described the process as "eviscerating" and listed "fundamental deficits in the Anne Arundel County Health Department," including, she said, that a select few perpetuate a culture of insensitivity toward individuals from diverse backgrounds.
Zaslow said he was disappointed in the decision and that he and his client were considering her legal options.