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August 31, 2007

City Charter revisions - An Ambitious Task

George Wenschhof

The decision by Mayor Jeff Holtzinger to review the 20-plus articles that make up the Charter of City of Frederick is a worthwhile and much needed endeavor. A regularly scheduled interval for future comprehensive charter reviews should also result from this action.

This ambitious review is much more extensive than the Master Plan, which is one section of one article (Planning and Zoning) that provides the frame work of future development of the city.

The charter is an administrative law document and the articles within provide the legal guidelines as to how the city operates in regard to all aspects of city government on a day-to-day basis. In a recent conversation with the mayor, he indicated that at a conference in Ocean City a speaker had suggested that if a municipality's charter was longer than 30 pages, it needed to be revised. The City of Frederick's Charter is over 100 pages.

The Master Plan is updated on a regular basis and was last updated during the previous administration. It is generally understood adjustments to planning concepts may be called for as time goes by. This development and review process was comprehensive and occurred over a 1-2 year period, as it should for such a significant document.

However, some still viewed the process as rushed and others claimed they did not understand all the proposed zoning changes even with regularly scheduled and well advertised mayor and board meetings. In the end, the comprehensive changes to the Master Plan were made, approved and implemented.

As time goes by, changes/updates to the city's charter should also be considered; but not on a frequent basis for this is the governing document for the city and should not be politicized. Although revisions have occurred from time to time, they were to specific articles in the charter. The last review of the entire document took place in 1953.

Undertaking a review of such an essential governing document should take time, including receiving valuable input from the public during the process.

Articles in the charter cover the many areas that make up city government, such as the finance department, public works, personnel, parks, police, city attorney, and redevelopment and urban renewal. The charter may be easily read online by going to the City of Frederick web site at and clicking on charter/code located in the left margin of the home page.

The articles that have received the most media attention are the ones pertaining to the mayor, board of aldermen, and the election process. In particular, residency requirements and a recall provision for City of Frederick elected officials.

This is primarily a result of the lingering political fallout resulting from the election of Mayor Holtzinger in 2005. Former Mayor Jennifer Dougherty was unsuccessful in challenging that her opponent in the Democratic primary, Ron Young, did not meet the residency requirements spelled out in the charter. Some time later, she would go on to lose the Democratic primary election to Mr. Young.

Earlier in that election year, when the Republican aldermen voted to amend the charter to change the residency requirement for mayor from three years to one year, she exercised her veto power.

After a federal court ruled that the City of Frederick's three year residency requirement for mayor was unconstitutional, Ms. Dougherty withdrew her veto and signed the original resolution lowering the residency requirement to one year. At this time a short window allowing non-residents (Jeff Holtzinger and Stanley Mazaleski) to run for mayor opened. Interestingly, Mr. Holtzinger grew up a stone's throw from the boundary of the City of Frederick, attended city schools and worked as an engineer for the city.

The former mayor and her close supporters are still upset over how they feel she was treated by the Republican aldermen during her administration. They presently encourage the current Democrat aldermen to challenge the Republican mayor's actions, his residency and to call for a recall provision, a subject often discussed during the Dougherty administration. Yet to date, no groundswell of support has occurred.

Whether it was Republican aldermen causing problems for the former Democratic mayor, or her actions which caused problems with the Republican aldermen, this is no longer the issue facing the city residents. The voters resolved this issue by voting in a new mayor and board and sent a strong signal they were tired of the constant political "fighting" of the board and mayor.

Voters want the discussion to be about solving the congested roads, creating more affordable housing, finding solutions to illegal immigration as it affects us locally, keeping crime low and gangs out, and bringing higher paying jobs here so commutes can end.

Legal decisions have made residency requirements for candidates in municipal elections questionable. Therefore, clarifying the residency requirements in addition to providing for a recall provision for city elected officials is reasonable and is part of one of the articles included in the charter review process.

Some of the additional discussion topics may include non-partisan elections, the election of aldermen by voting districts, and the process for allowing a candidate who is non-declared (in regards to political affiliation) on the ballot.

Also creating the position of city manager may be discussed. Often a mayor is elected with limited public administration experience and this position might be a good complement to a mayor.

I commend Mayor Holtzinger for beginning the charter review process by appointing a charter review committee and for his commitment to a total review. The mayor announced the committee would meet for the first time after Labor Day. It is also heartening that Jerome Offutt, a well respected Fredericktonian and member of the last city charter review committee, agreed to serve once again.

However, the appointment of the members to the committee has come under scrutiny. While the appointed members are all well qualified, there is an absence of a woman, an African-American, and an Hispanic on the committee.

I would encourage the mayor to either consider adding members representative of the many segments of our community to this committee, or to increase representation by creating subcommittees to work on revisions to specific articles in the charter. The public focus must be on the review and not the membership of the committee.

It would also be well advised for the first order of business to be establishing and publicizing an outline and time table for the review process that includes ample opportunity for public input, which is vital to this process. So I would suggest adding steps to the required public notice of a mayor and board meeting.

Upon the initial completion of recommended changes to an article/s, these changes should be sent for comment to community organizations such as, but not limited to, the neighborhood advisory councils (NACs), the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the Democrat and Republican Central committees, and the Chamber of Commerce. Although this will add time to the review and approval process, it would help ensure public participation.

"Time is of the essence" should not be the driving force in the charter revision. This is an all important governing document that - when reviewed - should be done with thorough deliberation and public participation prior to a vote to approve by the Board of Aldermen.

This charter review is long overdue and it is encouraging that the mayor and board have begun this process.

Stay informed of the proposed changes and make sure you add your voice. Your thoughts are important and you can make a difference in the governing laws of your city.

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