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February 23, 2015

Rocky Roads and Rough Waters

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

There is no doubt that those of us who strongly supported charter government were employing a measure of hope in our strategy for the new government.


Hope that voters might elect the right people to public office. Hope that those people, once elected, would be able to focus on the future of the county and shelve their individual interests. Hope that the whole experiment wouldn't devolve into the mess that people like afternoon radio pundit Tim May predicted would be a disaster.


So far, to suggest it's a disaster is a bit of an overstatement. On the other hand, to claim it a rousing success is likewise erroneous.


At this point, charter government is a mixed bag of confusion, egos, first-date jitters and partisan finger-pointing.


Excepting the jitters, it’s probably not too different than the commissioner form of government.


It started off just fine. Newly elected County Executive Jan Gardner had a fairly solid grasp of what it would take to lead the new government. Her decades-plus experience in Winchester Hall gave her familiarity most first-time charter government leaders wouldn't have. Add to that a willing workforce, and Ms. Gardner's first six months were pretty well set.


The new seven member council was an entirely different issue, though.


As expected, Republicans held the majority, albeit a slim, one-member majority. They also boasted experience, with Billy Shreve and Kirby Delauter both having just come off a four-year stint as commissioners.


In an oddly telling first official act, partisan loyalty was tossed aside as Bud Otis aligned with the three Democrats (Jessica Fitzwater, Jerry Donald and M.C. Keegin-Ayer) to obtain the council president's seat. His selection was followed by Ms. Keegin-Ayers election as vice president.


And this under a GOP majority, no less.


Not many observers saw that coming. Mr. Otis, in his 20 years beside former GOP Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, was known as a fierce partisan. Something changed.


Now, Mr. Otis works very closely with Executive Gardner. They meet weekly to discuss county business and they travel together to meet with county staff at various locations. One assumes they might be cooperating to present a coordinated front to the staff and to the public.


On the surface, none of these things are bad, but given the history and past practice, it causes some confusion.


Add in the legislative delegation to the General Assembly, and the recipe quickly turns from sweet to sour.


While the county can now handle a number of routine business items on their own under the charter, there will always be a need to present legislative initiatives to the delegation in Annapolis.


A recent example makes this point. For many years, Billy Shreve, one of the two at-large councilmen (Mr. Otis is the other), has been trying to get a bill passed to add Frederick County to the counties in Maryland that allow Sunday hunting. He has proselytized, cajoled and clamored for the change. He's held public hearings, briefings and informal meetings.


Year after year, he's found himself stymied, first by farmers, then by sportsmen’s groups, who fear that opening the books on hunting regulations could allow opponents to introduce new restrictions.


Mr. Shreve appears to be the type who doesn't take no for an answer, though. The bill is back, this time with a broader base of support than he's had in the past. His can-do spirit seems to have paid off. Even a majority of the delegation appears open to introducing his bill, which is a change from the past.


At the introductory presentation to the delegation, Mr. Shreve was told to obtain a position from his colleagues on the council. Seems easy enough, huh?


In theory, maybe. In practice, not so much.


First off, his proposal doesn't appear to be as enthusiastically embraced by his fellow council members. Secondly, their limited schedule of legislative sessions introduces a new complexity to the dynamics of obtaining majority approval. Finally, tension between Mr. Shreve and Mr. Otis seems to be a regular phenomenon, something we can look forward to watching for the next three-and-a-half years.


On the partisan ideology side, the Democrats (Keegin-Ayer, Donald and Fitzwater) seem to possess reliably liberal ideologies. The idea of sending hunters out to slay Bambi on Sunday probably isn't their top legislative priority, so no one would blame them for being blasé toward the idea.


Regarding the meeting schedule, the charter limits the council to basically two meetings a month where they can conduct legislative business. President Otis has had to cancel at least one recent meeting due to winter weather, an irony considering the General Assembly only meets in the winter.


Lastly, the Shreve/Otis ill-will dynamic started before the ink was dry on the book they sign following their oath of office. Billy Shreve wanted to be council president so bad that he was no doubt practicing being called "Mr. President" in front of his mirror. The switcheroo Mr. Otis orchestrated with the Democrats on the council was a thing of political beauty, which is to say, it was sneaky, under-handed and totally self-serving.


But beautiful.


I'm certain that Mr. Shreve will continue to see any and all actions taken by President Otis as a slight, both personally and politically, whether they are or not.


It's not clear that any of these things were envisioned when the charter government process was being debated, but maybe they should have been.


The good news is that Ms. Gardner seems to know what she's doing. Maybe not flawlessly, but she appears comfortable with the process and people, and has a plan and is following it.


The council, on the other hand, seems to have some rough water ahead as they try to navigate.


It's obvious that they need a better map.


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