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As Long as We Remember...

August 28, 2012

A Great Idea, Just Not Now

Steve Gottlieb

Each county in the state of Maryland has its own unique set of circumstances under which local government must operate. What works well in one county may not work in another. When local government is inefficient or ineffective, citizens need a mechanism by which to change it.


Article XI-A of the Maryland Constitution provides the legal foundation for that change to take place. This is further spelled out in Article 25A of the Annotated Code of Maryland, laying out the framework for counties and the City of Baltimore to define a form of local government best suited to its own unique circumstances. In Frederick County we are in the midst of going through just such an evolution.


When the current Board of County Commissioners came into office, they did so on the campaign promises of bringing spending under control, reducing the county’s deficit and making our county government more efficient and effective. In the commissioners’ estimation, a change in the form of government was needed. To accomplish that goal they appointed a charter writing board in accordance with Maryland law. Over the last 18 months this board worked very hard doing research and hearing public testimony on what people would like to see in a new form of government often referred to as charter government.


The final draft was recently presented to the commissioners and will be on the ballot this November for consideration by the voters. The charter writing board should be commended on the amount of time and effort they put into producing a very well-written and well-intended document. The question now is does this document present a form of government best suited for Frederick County?


On the positive side, the draft charter ensures a well-defined separation of powers between the county executive and county council. There is no way under this charter that the executive has unchecked power if the council is doing its job. The perceived power of the executive is a major stumbling block for passing charter government in Frederick County. This is not an issue people should worry about under the current draft, but it is their responsibility to vote for people who will do the job for which they are elected.


While this is an excellent document, there are still sections that need to be changed before it should be approved. Section 209 deals with filling vacancies in the event a council member is unable to complete their term of office. It calls for the central committee of the political party for which there is a vacancy to submit three names to the rest of the council and they will choose one of them. If for some reason there is a Democrat or Republican vacancy that party should submit their pick to fill the open spot. The council should not choose from a list of candidates as that leaves too much room for partisan deal making and personal favors.


However, if the vacancy happens to be because someone who is independent or unaffiliated leaves office early, then the council can choose whomever they want regardless of party affiliation. It seems, to be fair, that the person filling a vacancy of an independent or unaffiliated councilmember should themselves be independent or unaffiliated and not of a particular political party. Again, this leaves too much room for political gamesmanship and partisan politics as we often see at the state and federal level.


The latest example at the state level deals with the appointment of someone to fill a vacancy on the Orphans Court of Frederick County. There was Republican vacancy; the Republican Central Committee made a recommendation to the governor and he chose a Democrat. While not allowed to this extent under the draft charter, there is still too much room for political maneuvering.


The council should not have a choice of who fills a vacancy, only the voters or the representatives of the voters for each party. A procedure needs to be developed for replacing independent or unaffiliated council members.


Section 211 gives the council subpoena power. While this ability is restricted only to those entities that are either part of the county or do business with the county, this just gives the county council too much leeway to play political games. We have a state’s attorney in Frederick County for a reason. The state’s attorney has subpoena power and is responsible for investigating illegal activity within the county. There is no need to provide this power to the council where political maneuvering may be the order of the day.


One of the issues that needs to be better defined in deciding whether or not to change our current form of government is: Will the change be budget neutral? Remember, under our current Board of County Commissioners we actually have a balanced budget and know what our costs are. Nowhere in the draft charter is there any indication that a change in our form of government will maintain the current level of government spending. In fact, without any safeguards built into the charter, there is nothing to prevent an increase in administrative costs given an increase in a number of council members plus the addition of a county executive. Without limitations government seems to grow exponentially.


There are other issues with which people are concerned while determining if the county should move to charter government. Most of them deal with the size of the council, whether there should be districts or whether elections should be at-large, and do we need to change at all. These are academic in nature and depend on an individual’s understanding of local government and how it works most efficiently.


The bottom line is that charter government is a good idea and does offer the opportunity for more efficient execution of executive responsibilities, less dependence on the state legislature and increased self-determination for the voters of Frederick County.


That said, until the issues mentioned above are addressed this charter should be defeated in the November election.


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