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February 2, 2007

Moving Charter Government Forward

George Wenschhof

A burning question continues to be: "When will the voters have an opportunity to vote and express their desires on charter government?" Under a charter voters would elect a county executive (administrator) and a county council (legislative body).

The last time the voters had a chance to vote on this type of representative government was in 1991. At that time charter was defeated in the referendum by a 3-1 margin. Speculation was that some people feared that former County Commissioner Galen R. Clagett wanted to be the county executive. Those same individuals launched a concentrated effort to successfully defeat the referendum.

Should charter government be instituted, it would result in the executive having stronger administrative authority and the ability to work directly with the state legislature on matters pertaining to Frederick County. It is felt by many that this form of government is better suited to meet the needs facing Frederick County residents today.

During the contest for commissioner last year many candidates were asked if they supported a change to charter government. Now, the newly sworn-in commissioners have the opportunity to go on record regarding a change to this form of government. This of course, is dependent on having this issue being placed on an agenda.

There are two ways to bring about a county-wide referendum allowing the voters to have their voices heard on this subject. In both cases, a charter-writing committee is established and has up to 18 months to craft the document.

One is a lengthy and cumbersome process that begins with a petition signed by 20% of the registered voters in Frederick County, or 10,000 registered voters, whichever is less. Next are the nomination and election of the charter board members which is also done by referendum and a special election. Finally they begin to write the document that will go up for vote at yet another election. This two step referendum process is onerous and has not been used for decades.

The other - and more practical method - is for the Board of County Commissioners to create a charter-writing committee.

Voters would then decide to accept or reject the charter at the next county-wide general election-(state or presidential election cycles) - or in a special election. The latter of these choices is not preferred for it is costly and the voter turn-out would undoubtedly be much lower, as was the case in 1991.

Timing and scheduling is important, for the state constitution requires the election take place no sooner than 30 days and no later than 90 days after the proposed charter has been advertised. The proposed charter is required to be published in local newspapers at least twice within 30 days of receipt of the charter document from the committee.

If the voters approved this change, it would take effect on a date specified in the charter, most likely the next state and county election cycle. So, if a charter-writing committee was appointed now and the referendum voted on and passed in the 2008 election, the voters would elect a county executive and county council in the 2010 election.

This sounds like a fairly simple process, doesn't it? However, now the posturing and political maneuvering of current elected officials begins. Due to the prescribed time lines mentioned previously, delays in appointing this committee can essentially put off for years the date that voters could express their views on this issue. Requiring a petition approach would essentially end the opportunity for voters to weigh in with their desires.

After the recent election, the discussion began with Commissioner Charles Jenkins publicly indicating he would like to see charter government discussed by his fellow board members.

Commission President Jan Gardner says she wants to hear more feedback from the public, in particular the Frederick County League of Women Voters.

Commissioner John Thompson championed code home-rule, which was defeated by the voters in 2002. He has indicated that if the voters want charter government they should show their support by submitting a petition for the change in government.

Commissioner Kai Hagen has expressed the idea that there is no need to rush and that time should be given for consideration of this change, while fellow Commissioner David Gray has been silent.

Delegate Galen Clagett (D, 3A) recently submitted a resolution to his colleagues in the Frederick County delegation asking the commissioners to create a charter writing committee. Yes, this is the same Galen Clagett who championed charter government in 1991.

It was reported in The Gazette last week that after Delegate Clagett's resolution failed, State Senator and Senate Minority Leader David Brinkley (R., Frederick/Carroll) weighed in supporting the creation of a charter-writing committee. Also reportedly in support of this action were Delegates Sue Hecht (D., 3A) and Rick Weldon (R., 3B), chairman of the delegation.

This is significant in that this strong support to establish a charter-writing committee from our state delegation is bipartisan.

If the creation of a committee is not put on the agenda for a vote by the commissioners, they would not have to consider this change. A petition procedure would then need to be instituted and - as I stated earlier - this process is onerous and not likely to proceed.

This would result in an unnecessary and lengthy delay before the voters can express their desires to change - or not - their form of representative government.

I would suggest that first the commissioners' request a summary from the county attorney's office on these two procedures so that they can make an informed decision.

After which, I believe it is time for Commissioner Gardner to move forward and place this item on a worksession agenda.

The commissioners should not - at this point in the process - get bogged down by dwelling on the minutia of the document that will be prepared by the charter-writing committee. Instead they should move forward on a dual front by concurrently soliciting opinion from the voters and having the charter-writing committee write the document.

They should concentrate on three areas: first, a decision on the establishment of the committee; second, the size and representative make-up of the committee; and third, the charge to be given to the committee.

The make-up of the charter-writing committee should be bipartisan and representative of all Frederick County communities.

The charge given to the charter-writing committee should require that it hold an on-going series of open and public meetings throughout Frederick County to solicit feedback and input from the residents.

The committee should also be required to complete this enabling document so that it may be voted on in the 2008 presidential election - an election cycle which has the highest turnout of voters locally. If this referendum is approved, it would result in the voters choosing a county executive and county council in 2010.

The charge of the committee, as well as the representative make-up of the committee, is what should be included on the commissioners' agenda.

Then, they could have a reasonable discussion with feedback from the public that hopefully would result in a decision allowing this committee to be formed as soon as possible.

It is time to create a committee and move this discussion forward.

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