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Considering Charter Home Rule
 in Frederick County

David Rodgers
Executive Director
Charter Education Coalition

(11/1) As Frederick County citizens consider changing the current form of local county government from Commissioner to Charter Home Rule, the Charter Education Coalition has taken on the responsibility of educating FC about the implications of Charter Home Rule and the specifics of the proposed Charter. In fulfilling that mission, we believe the following few highlights will be helpful as citizens seek to make a well-informed and wise decision on this important issue on November 6.

A Charter is a document that simply spells out the powers, duties and structures of government; often compared to a "constitution" at the local level. Forty (40) percent of American counties have adopted a Charter form of government.

All 12 municipal governments (cities/towns) in FC operate under a Charter. Locally elected city councils set policies, ordinances, fees, tax rates, and a host other local laws, procedures and rules. An elected Mayor/Burgess serves as the executive of the town/city, manages its business, administers its laws and serves as spokesperson of the community. And, while municipalities must comply with certain County/State laws, rules and regulations, they have the right and responsibility for operating their community as local residents decide.

Currently Frederick County operates under a five-member Board of County Commissioners, elected at large, with equal power/authority and responsibility to both set legislative policies and execute the day-to-day operation of government. The Commissioner form of government has been around since colonial days and currently there are seven (7) counties in Maryland that operate under this form of government. Eleven (11) of Maryland’s 23 counties operate under a Charter government.

Home rule, flexibility, efficiency, local decision-making, checks and balances and a separation in government responsibilities between more clearly defined legislative and executive branches, are the primary reasons for considering a Charter form of government for Frederick County.

Under the proposed Charter, there would be a seven (7) member County Council - five (5) elected by districts and two (2) at-large. Council members would be elected to four-year terms and able to serve no more than three consecutive terms, with a stipend of $22,500 per year. A County Executive would be elected to a four-year term and able to serve no more than two consecutive terms, at a salary of $95,000+ a year. The County Executive serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the county and on a full-time basis. The County Council is a part-time commitment.

If FC citizens vote to change the form of government to Charter Home Rule, the Board of County Commissioners will remain in place until 2014, the end of their elected term. In November 2013, voters will elect a new County Executive and County Council, after which the Board of County Commissioners will no longer exist. However, the current members of the BOCC will not automatically become Council members, but must run (if they choose) for election along with all other candidates.

As the Charter Education Coalition has heard questions and comments about this important issue, perhaps the following answers to some of those questions will be helpful.

Q. "Charter government is more expensive…"

A. There is no valid connection between the structure of a government and its cost. Cost has more to do with who is elected to office, the choices they make and the services demanded of citizens than the form of government. A County Executive under Charter Home Rule will be able to set clear priorities for the County and run the government more efficiently through sound management principles; and, hopefully save money in the process.

Q. "The current system works well…"

A. There are many limitations to the current local government; no separation of power, five different commissioners making both policy and executive decisions, no one spokesperson with authority to speak on behalf of the county, limited local decision-making authority, delays in timely decision-making as five executives with equal authority seek to make daily executive decisions, etc.

Q. "Charter places too much control in the hands of one person…"

A. Where the current form of government offers no checks and balances and has only one branch of government, Charter establishes two branches of government - legislative and executive – so that no single branch or elected official has too much power. The current form places five (5) people in charge; not a good management practice. No successful business or organization has five chief executives.

Q. "Charter adds another costly layer of government…"

A. Under Charter, an elected County Executive will be in place to manage County affairs, set clear priorities and run the County more efficiently through good management. Charter provides for two branches of government (not two layers of government) with an equal balance of power/authority over legislative and executive responsibilities. Cost of government always depends on the services that citizens want from their government.

Q. "The proposed Council structure will create a political atmosphere where gerrymandering will rule over drawing new district lines every 10 years…"

A. The redistricting commission membership will include an equal number of independent voters, to provide balance with the political parties, which should address any gerrymandering concerns.

Q. "Charter will make FC like Montgomery and Prince George’s counties…"

A. Comparing Frederick County to the larger jurisdictions like Baltimore or Montgomery County is like comparing peaches to pencil sharpeners; they have nothing in common. However, Harford and Howard counties are closer to Frederick in size and are both Charter counties operating efficiently.

In summary, we hope citizens will consider the following four points as they seek to make a wise decision on this important issue.

First, Charter Home Rule will give Frederick County authority to craft its future direction… Under Charter Home Rule, local decisions can be made on local issues, without seeking permission from the General Assembly. Under the current Commissioner structure of local government, FC has limited control over many local decisions. It must often seek permission from Annapolis on various issues before they are considered by the local County Commissioners, and many times the ultimate decision on those issues is made in Annapolis.

Second, Charter Home Rule operates with an elected County Executive "where the buck stops…here!" The Executive would be held more accountable by voters and the Council for management of the county, set clear priorities and operate the County more efficiently through good management practices.

Under the current Commissioner "government by committee," policy and management decisions must be made by five (5) Commissioners with equal authority, so there is no one person totally accountable to voters for the final decisions that are made and no one person holds ultimate executive responsibility for the management of government. A group of five people can often shift the "blame" for decisions made, but cannot be nimble and often can’t act quickly on decisions impacting Frederick’s economy or day-to-day management.

Third, Charter provides a system of checks and balances between an elected Executive and Council. The County Executive: manages and administers day-to-day operations; streamlines decision-making among departments and agencies; implements policies and laws passed by the County Council; and, submits a budget for Council approval.

The County Council: considers overall direction and policy of the county, passes local laws and ordinances and approves the County budget.

The current government structure has no system of checks and balances. Commissioners make all policy and executive decisions with no formal separation of powers and the five Commissioners hold both the legislative and executive role.

And, fourth, Charter would give Frederick County a stronger voice with the State government…The elected County Executive would represent the County in discussions with the Governor and legislative leaders on State funding decisions for items like transportation, education and other impacting issues.

Currently, no one elected official is identified as local spokesperson for Frederick County when State funding decisions are made or when other significant leadership decisions are made by state and regional leaders which impact FC.

Local decisions on local issues, a separation of legislative and executive responsibilities, daily checks and balances and good management practices and a spokesperson for Frederick County in dealing with the Governor and legislative leaders – important factors to consider in changing to a Charter form of government.

Charter Education Coalition is a 501c3 nonprofit, education organization established to educate the public in Frederick County about the forms of county government available in Maryland; about the implications of adopting a charter form of government; and, about the proposed charter for Frederick County; and on a nonpartisan basis, to encourage citizens to educate themselves about and participate in consideration of the proposed charter in a referendum in the general election on November 6.

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