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The Case Against Charter Government

Kai Hagen
Former County Commissioner

(11/1) Let me start out with a question. What Is something I have in common with many prominent county Republicans, such as Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, former county commissioner John "Lennie" Thompson, former county commissioner and state delegate Charles Jenkins, state delegate Michael Hough, former state senator Alex Mooney, Pastor Tim May and others?

The answer is that we're all opposed to the charter on the ballot in Frederick County on November 6th.

Before getting into the weeds of the charter we'll be voting on, it's important to make a broader point. The vote you get to cast soon is not a vote for or against the idea of charter government in Frederick County. It is a vote for or against a very specific charter. We don't vote yes for charter, then pull the charter manual off the shelf in Annapolis. Instead, an appointed Charter Board wrote the charter, and, along the way, made a lot of important decisions about a variety of options. And those decisions make a big difference.

So, while some people are opposed to any charter for Frederick County right now, many others are opposed to THIS particular charter because of many and specific problems that are simply too serious to overlook.

In fact, to emphasize that point, I'll note that the well-respected and non-partisan League of Women Voters of Frederick County has been a very consistent and strong advocate for charter government in the county, for a long time. The league has encouraged the move to charter. They followed the process of creating this charter very closely, and offered analysis and commentary along the way. And yet they have been unwilling to support and endorse the specific charter that was written.

That isn't surprising, since this particular charter is full of serious flaws.

Don't be surprised, though, if you don't hear about any of those flaws from the folks at the so-called "Charter Education Coalition." With development interests and the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce doing the heavy lifting and providing much of the substantial funding, the coalition established a non-profit organization to "educate" you and other county voters about charter government, in general, and the specific charter on our ballot, in particular.

But, while operating under the pretense of being a fair and balanced source of objective information about the charter, the coalition is actually an unreservedly pro-charter effort, comprised entirely of individuals and organizations that are strong charter advocates. Significant money from those advocates has enabled them to set up a fancy website, print and distribute professional mailers, purchase ads in newspapers and on the radio, and more, all extolling the virtues and wonders of a switch from our commissioner form of government to charter.

You're told by the coalition that charter will give the county "authority to craft its future direction." But they don't tell you that could have been accomplished by putting a charter on the ballot that could have looked the same or only slightly different from the system we have now, without the long list of dramatic changes, and that it would have been able to evolve slowly, and more carefully, over time.

You're told by the coalition that charter means local decisions can be made on local issues, without seeking permission from the legislature in Annapolis. But they don't tell you that we already make most local decisions locally, and that roughly 80% of the bills we've sent to Annapolis in recent years would still have to go to the legislature. They also don't tell you that most of those bills are passed as a "local courtesy" if our local delegation to Annapolis supports them.

You're told by the coalition, over and over again, that charter will make county government more efficient and accountable. But those general assurances are not explained, and they don't tell you that the very strong executive/weak council model in this charter would mean that we would trade the highly transparent government we have now for one in which the county executive can manage the county almost entirely behind closed doors. In fact, the charter board felt compelled to give a supermajority of the county council the ability to subpoena county employees, because the weak council may not be able to obtain certain information any other way.

You're told by the coalition that voting for charter will give Frederick County a "seat at the table" and a stronger voice in state government. But, besides noting that there is no table --- no regular or formal gathering or process that excludes Frederick County because we don't have a county executive --- having one would not change the political calculus in Annapolis. It wouldn't change the fact that the county will still be a generally conservative county, with only about 4% of the state's population. A big part of the influence Montgomery County or Prince George's County has in the governor's office comes from each having almost a million people.

You're told by the coalition that the existing commissioner system is cumbersome and slower to respond. They say that the the powerful county executive is more "nimble" and can act more quickly. But how do they reconcile that with their other major talking point that charter government comes with more and better checks and balances?

Here are a few of the other things you aren''t likely to learn from the so-called "Charter Education Coalition:"

Most counties in Maryland, and most counties in the United States, do not have charter government.

In the strong executive/weak council model that the charter board chose, the executive drafts the entire budget, and he or she can do so completely behind closed doors.

If the executive wanted to cut all funding for a program, such as 4H or farmland preservation or whatever, even if all seven councilpersons wanted to restore some or all of that funding, they could not do so, except by holding the entire county budget hostage.

You will get to vote for one council member to represent your new district, and the two who run at-large (countywide). That means there will be four council members that you will never get to vote for, and that will see themselves as primarily representing the interests of other parts of the county.

Reinforcing the charter board's decision to establish a weak county council, council members will receive a salary of $22,500, or less than the salary of a part-time alderman in the City of Frederick.

If for any reason during their four year term, the county executive has to leave office, instead of having a county election to select a new county executive, either the Republican Central Committee or the Democratic Central Committee (assuming the executive is a Republican or Democrat) will essentially get to pick the new county executive, who could still have years remaining in their term in office.

And barring a statewide constitutional amendment, there would be no ability to recall the central committee-appointed county executive.

The new district lines come with the charter, and will be redrawn every ten years, but the charter board opted for a redistricting process that guarantees highly partisan gerrymandering for the first time in Frederick County, and for the foreseeable future. That is a big change, with all sorts of negative consequences that we've never had to think or worry about here before. We've always elected county commissioners and school board members and the sheriff and others as one county. Are we really at a point where it makes sense to carve the county up into separate districts? How will it benefit north county residents to vote for one council member (who could be from Myersville or Walkersville) from the northern half of the county, and not for four others that represent the City of Frederick and the southern half of the county?

In the end, the charter board could have written a simpler and more basic charter, without so many dramatic changes with uncertain or negative effects. They could have written a charter that would have come with home rule, while reducing or avoiding concerns and objections about an all-powerful county executive. They could have written a charter that didn't mean electing council members by districts, or making highly partisan gerrymandering inevitable.

But they didn't.

Some supporters of this charter acknowledge some of these problems, and insist that the problems can be fixed. But anyone who says some or all of these problems can or will be fixed easily or soon is fooling themselves, or they are trying to fool you.

I've long thought that charter might make sense for the county at some point, but that we didn't have an immediate crisis to solve, and that it was far more important to get it done right than to just get it done quickly. This particular charter was not done right, and it does not deserve our support.

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