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December 12, 2016

Two Years Under Charter

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Recently, Frederick County celebrated the first two years of the Charter form of government. Okay, maybe celebrate isn’t the right word, at least not for everyone.


Let’s put it this way: Most of the proponents for the change from Commissioner to Charter form celebrated. It’s safe to say that opponents were not wearing party hats.


Recently County Executive Jan Gardner listed several of her major accomplishments. Those include:


·         Negotiating a legal settlement to retain Citizens Care and Rehabilitation Center and Montevue Assisted Living facilities under county ownership;


·         Achieving the first-ever Triple-A bond rating from Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, and Fitch’s rating services;


·         Advancing a number of high-priority school construction projects;


·         A balanced county budget (required by the Charter) that added Sheriff’s deputies, fire and rescue personnel and 9-1-1 Call Center staff;


·         Senior staff that effectively coordinate and strategize with the county workforce to address citizen concerns and manage workload;


·         Developing and maintaining an effective working relationship with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.


One of Ms. Gardner’s repeated comments was that she held spending to essentially the same level of increase as the last term of the Board of County Commissioners, although her spending priorities were very different. That last comment was her way of taking some advance political shots at the angry replies she anticipated from the two Board of County Commissioners holdovers, Councilmen Billy Shreve and Kirby Delauter.


While the inaugural executive was laying out her list of accomplishments, the County Council was seeking to do the same, all the while holding their own required leadership election. Suffice it to say that the council’s record of accomplishment isn’t quite as sexy.


That actually makes some sense, though. The council is the legislative body, so it isn’t as easy for them to hold up similar operational success stories. They debate and pass bills, they don’t manage the daily workload of the county.


The first two years have seen a number of proposed bills get introduced but fail based on the passage of time.


The council has passed several bills that address zoning and land use, ordinance violations, development fees and an increase in the hotel tax. Many of these originated with the executive, again a process to be expected under Charter.


In retrospect, the issue isn’t really the form of government. The issue is politics, and the difference is between the viewpoint of the winner and the loser. In the case at hand, the winners include the county executive and the four-person voting block on the seven member council.


The losers are former Commissioners Shreve and Delauter, and to a lesser extent, Councilman Tony Chmelik.


Their dissatisfaction with the process of transitioning into the Charter form of government started when they all were first sworn in. County Republicans were dancing in the streets, having elected a majority to the council in what they believed would be a “check and balance” against the power of the executive.


Two of them, Bud Otis and Billy Shreve, were elected at-large, countywide representatives handed a mandate to establish a base of GOP influence over the three Democrats and Ms. Gardner in the legislative process.


Mr. Shreve made no secret of his intention to seek the council presidency, recognizing the bully pulpit that the largely ceremonial post would grant him.


Mr. Otis had other plans.


A student of the internal power process of the U.S. Congress for two decades serving Representative Roscoe Bartlett, Mr. Otis knew how to accomplish his objectives in a legislative environment. He successfully out-maneuvered Mr. Shreve for the leadership post by aligning with the three Democrats.


This voting block has continued throughout the first two years of the council, resulting in numerous 4-3 votes, notable for its consistency when it comes to the desires of the county executive.


In an ironic twist, one of the most frequent complaints from the 3-member voting minority has been that they were not provided sufficient staffing to properly examine and investigate the spending priorities of the county executive.


It’s ironic because one of the most fervent initial opposition arguments against the Charter proposal was that separating executive and legislative power would force the hiring of additional employees, therefore increasing the cost of government.


There is almost no reason to expect this trend to change, at least for the next two years. The coalition voted to maintain the current council leadership for the next two years, further alienating the three in the ideological minority. No doubt they’ll continue, if not increase, their vocal opposition to the plans of the executive.


In an interesting twist, Bud Otis recently opted to leave the Republican Party and serve out the balance of his elected term as a registered unaffiliated public servant.


Even the most cursory analysis of county voting trends suggest that he’ll have a very difficult time winning re-election if he isn’t associated with a major party. How that alters the balance of power on the council, since at-large Republicans will have a distinct electoral advantage for the foreseeable future, is anyone’s guess.


It’s unlikely that anyone who supported the idea of the Charter form of government anticipated the intensity of this partisan wrangling, although maybe they should have. The opponents certainly did.


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