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October 16, 2006

The Case for Charter

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

The debate about the form of governance employed by Frederick County has raged back and forth for decades. Voters have weighed in several times, always voting to retain the current form, the Board of County Commissioners.

To set the background, a little primer is in order. Essentially, the state constitution allows for three choices: Commissioner, Code Home Rule, and Charter.

The Commissioner Form is the most common in Maryland. Ten of the 23 counties operate under this form. Originally established as Levy Courts, it started out as a limited ministerial court overseeing revenue collection and the construction of roads.

The commissioners must request changes to local laws through the county legislative delegation. These changes can range from authority to raise revenue (i.e., the hotel tax) to changing the animal control ordinance.

In the Code Home Rule Form, the legislature passes more responsibilities directly to the county. Five Maryland counties operate under this form. Most of these were formerly commissioner counties. The process for change requires a two-thirds vote of the commissioners for a resolution to become a code county.

Once the commissioners adopt the resolution, the voters must approve the resolution language in a referendum election. While the code commissioners have considerably more authority, there are still instances where the Code Home Rule government must seek approval from the legislature. An example would be increasing taxes.

Under the Charter Form, the county government would be given the powers currently vested through the state constitution in the General Assembly. That includes the power to raise revenue, police powers, and full authority to structure and operate the government within the framework of a charter.

There are eight counties operating as chartered governments: Montgomery, Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, Howard, Dorchester, Talbot, and Wicomico. Talbot and Wicomico have chosen to use a Council/Manager form, where the council hires a manager to run the government as a direct-reporting employee.

To begin the process to change to a charter government, the local Board of County Commissioners would have to appoint a charter-writing board, assign them a timeframe for drafting the document, and determine a date for a referendum on the charter. Once empanelled, the charter-writing board is beyond the political reach of the commissioners.

Advocates for the Commissioner Form offer several arguments. Principally, the Commissioner Form allows for a public airing of an issue, and inserts the county legislative delegation as a sort of "check and balance," protecting the citizens from an out-of-control county commission. Also, having five commissioners elected at large and sharing all executive and legislative power equally protects the county from the creation of a too-powerful political personality.

Opponents of this form take the position that our current structure was perfect for Frederick County's past, but that the pace of societal change and the state of technology demands a different approach. Hours long meetings with back and forth, tit-for-tat political arguments on growth issues does not seem to serve the public's best interests.

One clear detrimental aspect is the difficulty facing the professional county staff when it comes to complex and intractable growth questions. The planning department should be making 20-year-plus plans for how the county will evolve. If the political leadership goes through wide philosophical swings every four or eight years, this kind of change is not conducive to good governance.

Another frequently cited argument is the idea that a charter brings with it an increased cost of governance. Evidence rests with the fact that many charter counties, who have a separate executive and legislative function, duplicate certain staff functions.

In neighboring Montgomery County, the executive has a legal staff, a budget staff, and a legislative staff. The county council has its own version of these functions. Similar situations exist in the other chartered county governments in Maryland with an executive and council.

The Council/Manager Form seems to refute the argument that charter automatically increases the cost of government, though. The two counties using that approach have not seen a measurable increase in the cost of government other than that which is attributable to inflation.

Maryland also has some Code Home Rule counties. In all cases, they have a Board of Commissioners, elected at-large, who govern with expanded powers. In weeks of research, no evidence has emerged to suggest that citizens have been denied the right to oppose initiatives or programs.

In fact, due to a quirk in the law that created Code Home Rule, almost everything a code county does is subject to a citizen-led referendum. That's not the case with the commissioner form.

Historically, Frederick voters have taken a dim view of the arguments supporting a change in the Commissioner Form of government. It isn't for lack of trying, though.

The most recent effort to turn Frederick County to a charter county came in the early 1990s. The charter writing board, created under the J. Anita Stup board of the late 1980s, crafted a very complete draft charter. This document delineated a split executive and legislative body.

The document was available for public review for over a year before the election. There were a number of forums and discussions, and the will of the voters manifest itself with an overwhelming rejection of the charter question.

Smart pundits and political watchers all debated the cause of strong negative voter reaction. One oft-repeated suspicion is that former Commissioners President Galen Clagett had made no secret of his interest in becoming the county executive. Galen dismisses this, but almost everyone else who knows the history smiles knowingly when asked about it.

If this public rejection of the need for change wasn't enough, in 2002 Commissioner John L. "Lennie" Thompson proposed a referendum question on Code Home Rule.

If explaining charter to the voters is complicated, explaining Code Home Rule is even worse. The commissioners scheduled several open meetings and public forums, but the turnout was less than stellar.

That relatively low turnout at the forums was a harbinger of a poor voter turnout, and the Code Home Rule referendum went down in a landslide. Recently, the issue of a charter came up a county commissioner's meeting. Mr. Thompson, already having suffered a defeat on the question, was in no hurry to travel that path again. He indicated that the voters have spoken, and he was not supportive of reconsideration.

Commissioner Jan Gardner didn't rule out a change, but made one thing very clear. She felt that it wasn't so much the form of government as much as it was the qualities of the people who are elected.

Commissioners Mike Cady and John Lovell appear perfectly content with the five member at-large elected Board of County Commissioners. Mr. Lovell expressed some concern with a council elected by legislative district. He described a situation whereby council members, elected by district, would be involved in horse-trading and deal-making in order to provide special consideration for their own districts.

His theory is that by electing commissioners at large, they are "kept honest" by the responsibility to serve all of the citizens. A simple solution, used in many charter counties, is to balance at-large and district representation.

Montgomery County, as an example, has four at-large members. When a Montgomery County resident goes to the poll, they vote for their district council seat and four at-large seats, casting a vote for a majority of the council.

Several groups, including the League of Women Voters, are pushing for consideration of a change in our form of government. Over South Mountain, the Washington County Board of Commissioners has already appointed a charter writing committee.

The committee will be focused for the next year on drafting a charter, using a very inclusive process to gather citizen input. No one knows what the future holds, but the bi-partisan, multi-faceted charter committee appears to reflect a community interest in a change of form.

With all of this focus on form of government, and with a legislative session in the offing, could the winds of change be stirring the political bushes in Frederick?

Chances are if the new Frederick Board of Commissioners gets what they want from the 2007 General Assembly session, all will be quiet at Winchester Hall. If not, and if there is any dissension in the relationship between the delegation and the Board of County Commissioners, expect a clamor for more authority being placed in local Frederick County hands.

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