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October 24, 2002

Coming Off The Fence On Code Home Rule

Al Duke

In the several years that Iíve been actively following the events in the political arena in Frederick County, Iíve come to appreciate the County Commissioner form of government that is operative in the county today. It can be very messy. There is probably not a single commissioner from the last several boards who would disagree with that.

Frankly, I think that is a plus. The inefficiency of the commissioner form of government does slow things down sometimes, but I think it allows for the greatest degree of participation by the citizens of any of the three forms of county government allowed in Maryland.

There has been a lot of talk about charter government for Frederick County. That does not thrill me either. The "strong executive" has inherent dangers. Very detailed charters can be incomprehensible to the general public. Bigger government may be a follow-on problem with charter.

So, Iíve been thinking about the "compromise" of moving to the Code Home Rule form of government for Frederick County. And Iíve decided finally that I do not want to go there either. It took a lot of waffling to reach this conclusion.

One of the reasons that it is proposed is that it will get the General Assembly off the backs of the County Commissioners. In the most recent case, with the zoning ordinance referendum issue, the local delegation endeavored to "guide" the county commissioners in a particular direction on that issue. At the time I thought that the guidance was more along the lines of interference. But in reviewing the proposed ordinance I came to the conclusion that while there were some interesting ideas in it, for the most part it was poorly done by the contractor. So maybe the guidance and the ensuing political storm brought about a needed reconsideration of the proposal.

Additionally, the Board of County Commissioners annually presents numerous proposals to the General Assembly for public local laws. The board and the public review these at work sessions and hearings and then the package is developed. The General Assembly further reviews the proposals and passes those that are supported by the delegates and senators separately (these days). Those that are not passed are the ones that are subject to the refrain of "get the General Assembly off our backs."

Under Code Home Rule, the Board of County Commissioners can pass these general local laws without review by the General Assembly. However, by passing laws that pertain to the "Code Home Rule counties in the Central Region" (a euphemism for Frederick County, since it would be the only one), the General Assembly can still affect what happens in the county. And there are still some public local laws that would need to be authorized by the General Assembly.

So, under closer review, getting the General Assembly "off our backs" is not all it seems to be at first glance.

I like the idea of having to go to Annapolis for public local laws and I like the idea that the Frederick County Delegation to the General Assembly has some political weight in what happens in the county, despite the occasional havoc that might occur.

Another reason given for moving to Code Home Rule is for a more structured legislative process. Under the current rules of the Board of County Commissioners, if a commissioner wants to introduce a piece of legislation, he or she must convince one other commissioner to go along. As I understand it, this is a local policy, not based on law, and can be changed by the board. I believe that any elected commissioner should have the same right as any citizen to propose legislation and to have it heard.

Under Code Home Rule, if the other four commissioners oppose a legislative proposal introduced by the fifth commissioner, it would fail to move forward. There is only a minimal change here, unless Iím missing something. There are a lot of other legislative rules under Code Home Rule. It would be more efficient in passing laws, especially where substantive changes are made in a proposal as it moves through the process. Currently, it must go back to the beginning and start again as amended. But as Iíve said before, Iím not necessarily opposed to these kinds of inefficiencies in enacting new laws.

The referendum is another issue that gives me some difficulties. Iím not opposed to referenda, generally. After all, this is a referendum issue. The Board of Education election proposal went to referendum. Previous charter issues have gone to referendum. And at each election there are usually one or more state questions or constitutional amendments that go to referendum.

However, under Code Home Rule, 10 percent of the voters could send a legislative initiative of the county commissioners to referendum, holding up the effective date of the law by up to two years. While 10 percent is usually hard to obtain, that number is not insurmountable. Taking legislation to a referendum that will not occur for several months - or up to two years - is more than mere inefficiency, it is close to hostage taking.

The last thing that I will mention is the possibility for referendum of bond issuance (given the 10 percent requirement). The state of Florida in recent years has given all of us some things to think about. Election reform is one of these. Bond referenda are another. In some counties it is nearly impossible to pass new bonds. Without the money that would be generated by these bonds, new schools and other facilities are not built. Schools get overcrowded and other facilities do not support the level of service required. While I trust that this would not happen in Frederick County, do I want to bet my grandchildrenís education on it? No.

So I am going to vote AGAINST on the Code Home Rule question on November 5.

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