"I Got the Code Blues"(or "Pull the plug on this Referendum")
The phantom political issue of the 2002 election season is the upcoming referendum on Code Home Rule scheduled for November 2002.
Believe it or not. it is very possible that in six months or less the form of government in this county could change with little fanfare. I believe that Code Home Rule is the worst thing Frederick County can do at this point. Its success will do serious harm to any effort to bring Charter Home Rule to Frederick County in the foreseeable future.
Let me briefly address several issues: What is Code? How might Code affect you? How did we get into, and how do we get out of, this position?
There are three types of governance structure available to counties in Maryland, namely Commission, Charter and Code. Marylanders are most familiar with the Commission and Charter forms.
The Commission form is presently in use in Frederick County. As you know, we elect five commissioners acting in both an executive and legislative capacity. The commissioners set policies and pass ordinances but have limited powers, requiring many laws affecting the county to be proposed by our delegation and passed by the Maryland General Assembly.
The Charter form is in use by many counties, including the seven largest and most powerful counties in Maryland. The executive function rests in an elected county executive who establishes a budget, sets county policy and establishes its vision. The legislative function is vested in a county council that has greater latitude to pass legislation than commissioners, subject to executive veto.
The Code form retains the commissioner form of governance but "codifies" existing county ordinances and permits the commissioners greater latitude in passing legislation without oversight from Annapolis including designating its structure and operation of the county government.
Over the years the discussion over the form of governance in Frederick County has been a discussion of the virtues of switching from the commission to a charter form of government. We have voted on the matter on several occasions, having rejected it most recently in 1991.
The debate was framed between grass roots proponents and opponents. Proponents of charter argue that the commission form forces consensus by at least three commissioners on every issue, and thus does not allow for the articulation of clear policy or vision, sends mixed messages to directors and agency heads, and is too slow to react to increasing demands for services or to plan to tackle long term issues.
Proponents argue that a single elected executive is more likely to articulate a consistent vision for the county and creates a level of accountability between the executive and council that is missing in the commission form. Charter, they argue, allows the county to be a more significant player on a statewide basis and to exercise more influence on the state government's allocation of resources by personifying the county in the form of the executive. They ask if any one of our commissioners merit the same attention the "Big Seven" county executives receive on a state issues and might a part time County Council be more attractive to a broader group of candidates presently uninterested or unavailable to serve as a full time commissioner.
The opponents complain that Charter government lacks checks and balances provided by the interplay between the commissioners and the county's delegation to the General Assembly. They argue that Charter will be more expensive and that the executive is likely to be too powerful. Many opponents have railed against Charter fearful of one or more particular candidates who might be elected county executive.
Which brings us to Code.
Although Code government does permit local elected officials to make more direct decisions without interference of the General Assembly, it also permits the commissioners to alter the basic structure of that government without the accountability of either Commission or Charter government.
Freed from the checks and balances of the General Assembly, the commissioners may continue to hide behind collective action rather than individual accountability. In other words, none of the political benefits of Charter are embodied in Code.
And you know what, I think that Code has a better than even chance of becoming our form of government!
How did we get here and why is this a distinctive possibility?
The answer to both questions lies in the same set of circumstances. In their wisdom, our commissioners took it upon themselves to initiate this vote. Unlike the Charter movements of the past 20 years (which were largely the doing of constituent groups), this Code movement was proposed in a political vacuum in order to accomplish specific political goals. It is precisely the lack of grassroots support for the change that creates an opportunity for success.
With no outspoken proponents, the issue has garnered little public attention and thus no significant opposition. Without the public information (or in some cases disinformation) generated by political debate, the measure will appear innocuous on its face and will receive sufficient votes for passage. A brilliant political move..if only its progeny were worthy!
Unfortunately, I believe that passage of Code will not be a baby-step toward eventual adoption of Charter. Rather it will be a hindrance. I believe that the flaws of the Commission form of government, enhanced by the lack of accountability of Code in the divisive political environment of Frederick County in the year 2002, will spell doom to further efforts to change the form of government in the immediate future..the public will be overly skeptical of a second change having been burned by the first.
Interestingly, the best hope for Frederick County to avoid this course is an effort by the ghosts of charters past . a combination of strange bedfellows . Pro and Anti-Charter forces, in vocal opposition to the referendum. However equally unfortunate is that if opposition is successful, many will see the vote as public satisfaction with the present system and it will then be difficult to rally another effort toward Charter Government anytime soon.
I am not sure whether those behind the Code effort were smart enough to figure that out.but then again maybe they were.