What Is It About CODE HOME RULE?
(Editor's Note! On October 20, The Defenders of Citizens Rights, a local property rights organization, held a very well attended pre-election rally at the Lynfield Events Complex. Earl "Rocky" Mackintosh, president of MacRo, Ltd., Real Estate Services, made a presentation on Code Home Rule. He has submitted a follow-up article on the topic to the readers of the Tentacle:
Election day is a little over two weeks away, and, as we all know, there are a number of candidates running for various state and local offices.
But there are also several other "Questions" on the ballot this November 5th. There are three regarding state issues that are explained on the ballot. And then there is the fourth and last: "QUESTION A," which is a matter specifically related to Frederick County.
Before I go any further, I must assume that any reader of this article is planning to vote on Election Day. And may I also assume that the typical voter would agree that he or she would not vote FOR something that he or she did not understand?
One final question is: Do you as a "typical voter" REALLY understand what Code Home Rule is all about?
I must confess that I have spent the last several weeks reading up on the subject and listening to experts on Maryland government at different forums. I have also asked questions of several Frederick County lawyers who seem to understand the legalities of the matter.
Frankly, it has taken a lot of time, and my conclusion is that it is NOT an easy subject to grasp.
Of course, I am not a lawyer, but one who has served the real estate community here in Frederick County for 30 years. And in my business I have learned one important thing about the law: The best kind of contract is one that spells out all the rules, and provides structure and guidelines to the agreement between the parties.
Frankly, from my perspective, I believe that any form of government is a contract between our elected officials and the voters, who put them in office. For instance in years past - up until this coming election - when our Board of County Commissioners take office, they know that the system of government that they will operate under clearly spells out what they can and can not do.
That type of government is aptly named the Commissioner form - a system by which the local commissioners share the law making authority with our state delegation and the General Assembly in Annapolis. Although, it is not the perfect triangle of the three branches of government that is found at the state and national level, it does provide the necessary "checks and balances" that are required to keep our politicians "honest" and not abuse their authority, as often happens in other countries.
There are two other forms of government in Maryland: Charter - being the first - more closely mirrors the balance of power found at the state and national level. It also has the very important ingredient of a very specifically defined structure that is worked out by its community PRIOR to becoming the law.
But the focus of my efforts in this article is not about Charter. It is about CODE HOME RULE, which is the third form of government. Our incumbent Commissioner (John L. 'Lennie')Thompson convinced a "super majority" of his comrades to place this proposed change on the ballot for the voters of Frederick County to decide (an issue that he has found no place in his campaign literature, nor worthy of adding an explanation on any ballot!). Interestingly enough, incumbent Commissioner (Jan) Gardner is stating that she voted for it in order to "give the voters the right to consider the matter for themselves, but personally will not vote for it." So Lennie stands alone on the issue.
But it must be asked: How does the Code form of government differ from our current commissioner form? And what is it about Code that has intrigued Mr. Thompson?
First, let's look at what Code is NOT.
Code Home Rule comes in a box with very little predetermined structure, which is, therefore, left to be worked out after the voters vote it in. But unlike Charter, however, it is not left to voters of the county to determine the structure, but up to the commissioners themselves!
What do I mean by that?
Two simple examples that I have found are that:
1) the newly elected commissioners could decide, that as of the next election, there will only be THREE commissioners instead our current FIVE; and
2) they can also CARVE OUT special representative voting districts for themselves, much like you find in Washington D. C.'s WARD system.
Keep in mind that these kinds of decisions do NOT go back to the Frederick County voters to decide in the next election. IT JUST HAPPENS! And realistically, there is NOTHING the voters can do about it! (I'll cover the "unrealistic" means later!).
Now, don't forget that all this can be done with a simple majority of three county commissioners! And, of course, this "license" to restructure the county government would then make it simpler for Mr. Thompson, because his reward is that when the dust has settled, he'd only need ONE MORE VOTE to make the policy and regulation changes he desires!
But what else is there about CODE HOME RULE?
A vote for CODE HOME RULE means our citizens are willing to allow our commissioners TO GIVE THEMSELVES A RAISE IN SALARY to whatever that majority of two or three decide! Of course, it wouldn't kick in until after the next election, but let's not fuss over the details.
They can also impose certain excise taxes on our community. And they can BORROW all the money they want to operate the county government through a bonding authority that has NO CEILING! God forbid that any good person elected to office would abuse these privileges, but isn't that why our founding fathers created a system of "checks and balances" in the first place?
Now, all of these actions can happen and take effect immediately (technically, I understand that there's a "short 45-day" grace period, which I'll get to later) WITHOUT our state delegation having a say in what is done.
These are just a few of the aspects of CODE that have me and many others concerned.
So, I ask, where are the "checks and balances"? Where is the balance of power?
Oh, but wait! We do have a safety net under Code Home Rule! Remember the phrases "unrealistic" and "short 45-day" period that I referenced earlier? Well, it's time to use them together, because if "we, the people," do not like what our commissioners have done, during an "unrealistic short 45-day period," the voters can get up a PETITION to call for a referendum to seek to overturn any issue that they find uncomfortable (got that?). Enough signatures on that petition will allow for a "Special Election" to be called.
So how many signatures is "Enough?" Answer: 10% of the registered voters in Frederick County, and there must be a separate petition for EACH issue that is being contested!
Ten percent, is that so bad, you ask? Well, in Frederick, where we have about 116,000 registered voters, imagine the EFFORT required to get 11,600 signatures ... in that short 45-day grace period! And even if the law states, which it might, that the first half of that amount must be achieved within those 45-days, that is more than a real job! Unrealistic, when you think that less than 10% of those voters cast ballots in the last primary. And then there's the cost figure of $50,000 for each special election!
In other words, a referendum is nearly impossible! So, those revenues from the imposed excise taxes and increases in borrowing continue, unless the dissenters are successful via one other route that is available.
The backup plan is to go our state delegation and request that the General Assembly take action to overturn the commissioner's action.
This happens to be the approach that our Commissioner Thompson touts as not really that different from the current process. But there is one big difference: it must be kept in mind that when the local community votes FOR Code Home Rule, it is saying to the state house, "STAY OUT OF OUR BUSINESS!" Therefore, it becomes much harder to convince the General Assembly to go along with what our delegation requests.
So that's it, as I see it.
And I ask again, what is about Code Home Rule that makes it attractive?
My answer is clearly stated in FOUR WORDS: It's all about Lennie!
When one considers his actions over the past four years, it is clear that he seeks more power to impose his doctrine upon the voters of this community, with as LITTLE CITIZEN INPUT as he can LEGALLY get away with. So, Code Home Rule is a logical and predictable route for him to pursue.
Not unlike the process that unfolded with the Zoning Rewrite and proposed down-zoning of earlier this year, Code Home Rule would close many of the doors and safety nets that, we, the people of Frederick County now enjoy.
So, as many have said in articles written of late: it is NOT the form of government that we should be concerned about, it's the people!!!
I say keep our current system in place! And on November 5th, VOTE AGAINST - Question A - Code Home Rule!
(Postscript: On October 10, 2002, Jim and June Trout and I filed the paperwork with the Frederick County Board of Elections to form a "local Issue Committee" known as CITIZENS AGAINST CODE HOME RULE. You can learn more about it by visiting our website at www.VoteNoCodeHomeRule.com. Financial and volunteer contributions are welcome!)