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Charter Government: Yes? No? ...Maybe?

Ellis Burrus

If youíve seen a number of people walking around in the county recently, clutching clipboards and asking strangers, "Excuse me, are you registered to vote in Frederick County?" Those are the volunteers collecting signatures on a petition to have an elected charter writing board.


Frederick County is moving towards changing our form of government to one that will give us more local control: a charter government.

Hereís a little background: in Frederick County we elect county commissioners. Thatís the kind of government that all Maryland counties used to have. Since the end of WWII most counties have adopted either Code Home Rule or charter government so that they can have more local control.

The way it works now is that our commissioners are restricted in their ability to enact local legislation. Every year they make up a wish list of local needs that our delegation takes to Annapolis where it goes before the Maryland House of Delegates and the Senate. IF those bodies pass our legislation then it goes to the governor to be signed into law. Itís not a good way to run our county.

Code Home Rule allows some more local control, but charter government provides the most autonomy.

To get a charter government, we have to write a charter, which, like our constitution, distributes power between parts of government and between government and citizens.

The current Board of County Commissioners has appointed a board to write our charter. Many citizens feel that something this important should be done by an elected rather than an appointed Charter Board. According to the Maryland constitution, there will be a special election if 2,000 registered voters petition for such an election.

There is concern among Frederick County citizens that the appointed Charter Board favors a strong executive -- one person would wield most of the governmentís power. That form of charter is just ONE of MANY that could be formed. There are many, many options. We need to explore and discuss them and be open to the best one for the Frederick County community..

For example, while I was out petitioning, I asked a guy if he wanted to sign my petition for an elected charter writing board. He responded, "I donít like charter government. I donít want some over-paid county executive telling us how to run things." Well, thatís the same as if Iíd asked him if he wanted some ice cream and he said, "No, I donít like chocolate mint."

Clearly, thereís a misunderstanding: ice cream comes in a lot of different flavors. So does charter government.

However, charter government is definitely not the same as "...some over-paid county executive telling us how to run things." Actually, there doesnít even have to be an elected executive at all. There could be a county council that appoints the executive. At this point, nothing is set in stone. Thatís what the charter writing board is supposed to do: examine all the possible forms of charter government, listen to citizen comments, and then write a charter that describes the best form for our local needs.

Many of us feel that the appointed board is heavily weighted towards the one flavor: the strong county executive form of charter government. The candidates who are on the petition are more open to the kind of government described below.

So, what should a good charter look like?

I think that the charter should describe an open government in which decisions are discussed and voted on in public meetings. There should be a council that represents all areas of our county. The executive and the council should work together without one dominating the other. There should be strong ethics provisions to guard against abuse of power. Finally, there should be provisions that prevent influence by special interests. It should also be short, i.e., it should not go on for pages and pages of detailed instructions. It should not try to micro-manage the future.

Another concern is that the charter could be defeated again. Yes, it was twenty years ago that a charter was presented to the voters and rejected. A slogan that helped defeat it read, "Charter government: yes. This charter: NO!"

If a straight chocolate mint charter describing a government run by a strong executive is presented to the voters there will be many who will fight against it. If itís defeated, weíll be set back at least another four years -- maybe another twenty years-- in our attempts to get some more local control through charter government.

So, if you see a petitioner, please sign their form, give Ďem a pat on the back, maybe buy an ice cream cone for them (any flavor). Just remember: if nothing else, theyíve got you thinking about the charter government process now.

If you would like to sign the petition you can get a copy by emailing:

Read other articles related to the Charter Writing Initiative