Building on the Foundation of Charter Home Rule
A forum of panelist urged a strong and unified effort by the first county executive and council to build a sturdy structure upon the new Frederick County Charter.
So, the framers of Frederick's new charter constitution completed their job, and the voters approved it by a wide margin. But how will the processes of comprehensive land use planning, zoning text amendments and other real estate development approval matters be addressed by our new government?
Well, the answers sure aren't in that 23-page document!
This question was the focus of the forum offered to members of the Frederick County Building Industry Association on March 11, 2014, at Dutch's Daughter Restaurant. Also invited were all candidates for the county's upcoming first primary election for county council and county executive seats.
The program was hosted by the local office of Linowes and Blocher, LLP, a regional real estate and general practice law firm.
The panel of speakers consisted of Bruce Dean, C. Robert Dalrymple and Lisa L. Graditor representing the firm. In addition Frederick County government attorneys John Mathias and Kathy Mitchell were available to provide their perspective on county staff preparation for the transition.
Invited guest panelists included Howard County Executive Kenneth Ulman, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket with Anthony Brown, Maryland's current Lieutenant governor, and me.
While more unanswered questions came for the gathering than were raised, the majority of attendees found the discussion very worthwhile.
The opening discussion centered on how and why Frederick County chose to switch from the existing Board of County Commissioner structure to that of Charter Home Rule.
Ed Waters, of The Frederick News-Post provided a good narrative of the core principles of the transition to charter in his March 12, 2014, article.
Being the panelist who served as an appointed member of the Charter Board, I explained that the general consensus of the members of that group was that the legislative and executive functions of the current commissioner form needed to be separated. In addition due to the fact that with a majority of the current Board of County Commissioners being only three votes, history has shown that there have been very severe swings in policy from one administration to another. This issue, in and of itself, seems to have brought predictable inconsistency to county regulations, which has caused a lack of confidence in government by the business community and other constituents.
County Executive Ulman provided critical insight into how important it is for all of the candidates, who are eventually elected to their respective offices, need to recognize that while they each will come to office with their own agenda, it is important to realize that they will be the first charter elected body...and with that comes a significantly higher responsibility.
What could that be, you may ask?
Well, consider that the Frederick County Charter Board, like "Ben and the Boys" who drafted a similar document for the fledgling "U S of A" some 238 years ago, drafted a constitution that only served as a framework from which policies and procedures for the operations of government are to evolve from responsible elected officials.
And without a strong willingness of collaboration among the eight (one county executive and seven council members), who will fill those sacred seats, to develop a smooth set of policies, our fragile new government could very well set a precedent for a mega screw-up that may continue for decades to come. Lack of cooperation from this first group of elected officials could create the unnecessary expansion of the size of a government bureaucracy that has risen in some other counties in Maryland, such as Montgomery and Prince George's. Mr. Ulman expressed great pride in Howard County, as he believes it was able to avoid this problem.
I'd like to think that with all the polarization that Frederick County has experienced over growth, our community is still small enough that our newly elected officials can put our differences aside for a while to focus on the primary task at hand...bringing order to our new form of government.
The hosts from Linowes and Blocher raised a number of specific land use and real estate related issues that will require cooperation among the newly elected executive and council.
For example, for those who follow the technical side of site plan, zoning and land use planning processes, consider the following questions raised by Mr. Dalrymple:
1. How will zoning text amendments be initiated? With the separation of powers, the county executive can only recommend a change, leaving sponsorship to any one of the seven council members.
2. How will work programs be established for master plan (comprehensive plan and region plan) updates? Will it be through the budget that the county executive sends over (funding specific region plans), or will the council propose in its budget funding for staffing based upon which plans are up for review?
3. How will local map amendments be made? The charter states that the council will be the ultimate decision maker, but without having any allocated staff to delegate the public hearing and assembling the record functions to, they could be spending countless hours considering very complex zoning matters. Mr. Dalrymple stated that "having a seven-member council perform this zoning function seems to me to be overwhelming and a train-wreck waiting to happen."
4. With the county executive controlling all of the staff that would be analyzing zoning matters such as text amendments along with public water and sewer issues – to name a few, how will the council, being the body that approves/enacts, be able to evaluate all of these matters?
5. Can the county executive veto a master plan (region plan) action taken by the council? How about a veto of a zoning text amendment? Will the executive have the power to veto a piecemeal rezoning?
These are challenging questions for sure! And there will be many more as things unfold.
As scary as all this may appear, it was the sage wisdom of County Executive Ulman who made it clear that the citizens of Frederick County did in fact make the right decision to make the switch to Charter Home Rule.
At the end of the day, all these issues will be worked out, he said. The degree to which a smooth transition occurs depends on who the citizens of the county select in November.
So, as you consider the candidates who knock on your door this spring, please realize that this time the election will be more about selecting a collaborative body that can draft smooth and efficient policy, than one of worrying about the typical issues that polarize and divide our community.
Stay tuned, my fellow Frederick countians!
‘Rocky’ Mackintosh, is President of MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland.He served as a member of the Frederick County Charter Board from 2010 to 2012.