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To Charter or not to Charter…

Bob White

There is a lot of buzz about Charter Government for Frederick County these days. But not many people – even the supposed experts – seem to know what it is, what it would do, or even if it would be good for Frederick County.

Maryland state government is very paternal. It tells the counties pretty much what they can do, what they must do, and what they cannot do. Counties are kept on a pretty short leash.

In 1827 the Maryland General Assemble gave counties the authority to establish their own, limited form of local government. This is the Commissioner form of government we now have in Frederick County, and the limits of this form of local government are specified in state law. The Maryland state General Assembly has full power to legislate for the County. Only powers specifically granted by the state legislature may be used by county commissioners to enact local ordinances, taxes and bond issues.

In 1915 the Maryland Constitution was modified to allow Maryland counties to establish their own local form of government and to take back some local control from the state legislature. To gain these limited freedoms, a county must write and enact, by referendum, a county charter – essentially a constitution for county government.

A Charter can specify what form the government will take, method of election, establishment of boards and commissions and compensation for county officials. It can give the county powers to enact local laws. It can give the county bonding authority (though limits are set by the state.) It allows counties authority to establish criteria for referenda on local laws. It can set ethics, open meeting and disclosure requirements for county officials, meetings and employees.

However, even under a chartered government, the state retains taxing authority. The state can still tell all Maryland Counties whether a tax may be enacted and how much it can be. The state also retains significant authority in the area of county planning.

So, is charter government worth the time and effort to draw up a charter and bring it to referendum? Well, that depends on your point of view. Obviously, with the state still holding onto the purse strings, regardless of the form of government, it has limited benefits. But the ability to enact local ordinances without going through the state legislature in every instance does have a certain appeal.

To me, the real question is not in whether or not a chartered government is good or bad…it is what form of government the Charter establishes. I lived for a time under the chartered elected executive/council government in Montgomery County, and now for a much longer period under the Commissioner form of government in Frederick County. In every way, the Commissioner form of government in Frederick County is less expensive, less bureaucratic, more efficient and more responsive to the citizens of the county.

Why is that? Not because of the charter itself, but because of the government established by the charter was the elected county executive/county council format. And that’s why I have concerns about this move toward charter government in Frederick County. This Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) favors that same form of government. And a majority of members of the BOCC –appointed Charter Board have expressed personal preferences for that form of chartered government. This scares me. And it is why people petitioned for an election of the Charter Board, so the voters could choose from a broadly representative group – not a pre-selected panel, already predisposed toward the elected executive/council form of chartered government.

A single highly-paid executive running this county is an open invitation for moneyed interests to have an inside track for favors. (It is easier to put big bucks into one election campaign than it is for multiple commissioner elections.) It is also the first step toward building a giant, expensive, unresponsive county government bureaucratic machine – controlled by one individual.

Some counties also have made their countys’ legislative body councilmen appointed by district rather than at-large. Under our current form of commissioner government, each commissioner is responsible to you. If you can’t get to see one, you can talk to another. Under election-by-district, you only have one councilman to approach - the one who represents you – and if he isn’t interested in your problem, well – "that’s all she wrote." Also, under our current at-large system of Commissioner election, every one of the Commissioners has to be concerned about the welfare of the entire county, not just his voting district.

So, do I support a charter government. Well that depends on how the charter is written. If it would charter an elected executive / county council form of government I would vigorously oppose it. But if it were to charter an At-large Commissioner form of government with an appointed county manager – much like we have today – I would support it in a heart beat. So – the moral of this story is to watch very closely what the Charter Board creates – because you will have to live under it – and pay for it - for the rest of your life.

Bob White is the current Chair of the Frederick County Planning Commission and was a candidate for County Commissioner in the 2010 primary election.

Read other articles related to the Charter Writing Initiative