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A Treatise On County Government

Scott Zuke

An inquiry into the nature and purpose of county governments with
a focus on to the main issues of the debate to alter the
Frederick County’s system of government.

John Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of Government’ outlines a theory of political or civil society based on natural rights and contract theory. Published in 1869, it had a marked influence on our nation’s founding fathers, and much of the US Constitution can trace its roots to this work of sentinel political philosophy.

7/2011) The saying goes that all politics is local, yet local government itself can be surprisingly difficult to follow. The issues may sometimes seem trivial, and those that are more important and controversial may still lack the kind of clear, partisan narrative that allow national political debates to serve not only as an exercise in public deliberation but also as entertainment. In general, local government is not exciting to those used to following national politics.

My best personal example comes from a year I spent filming Thurmont’s weekly town meetings. Over two or three weeks the hottest topic of debate was a grass height ordinance. Still awake? The deliberation was not without its humorous moments. One citizen collected grass samples from several commissioners’ yards and brought them in, stapled to a two-by-four, to demonstrate their own non-compliance with the proposed legislation. This was actually a highlight amid weeks of discussing fiscal year budgets, planning and zoning, and other issues too dull for a then-teenager to remember after a few minutes.

There is something fitting about the grass height example, though, when considering the nature of local governance. It is not usually the arena for deep debates over political philosophy and ideology. Rather it typically concerns managing property rights, that is, how what I do with my front lawn affects you or the value of your property. There are other things it covers as well, such as public services, but primarily local government is about economics in the classical sense: oikonomica, rule of the household. While the family is the most fundamental political unit, local government serves to mediate the interactions between families in a relatively small community. In many ways it mimics household management, working to provide for its constituent members and improve their quality of living, but doing so within a strict budget.

Today Frederick County has what is considered a local level of government, far smaller than Maryland’s state government, and a tiny fraction of the size of the US national government. Yet, at over 230,000 citizens, it is approximately the same population as Ancient Athens at the height of its power in the fifth century B.C., and bigger than most state populations at the time of the first national Census in 1790. It is not just dealing with grass height ordinances anymore. Frederick is a large and diverse community with various competing interests and ideas of how they wish the county to develop into the future, and so it is not surprising that there is renewed interest in securing greater local political autonomy.

As other articles in this paper have discussed, Frederick County is in the process of drafting a new charter form of government that would replace the commissioner form that has been around in Maryland counties since 1827. The effort has been fairly rocky, with partisan interests attempting to influence the drafting of the charter before it comes up for a vote in 2012. The various parties involved have framed the debate in a number of ways, and so in this series of forthcoming articles I will be working to separate out these issues and give them more focused scrutiny.

What are the issues that constitute the charter debate? The most fundamental question, of course, is whether a charter form of government would be beneficial to the county. The trouble is that we do not yet know the content of the charter (it hasn’t been written yet), and so we cannot make that determination. We can consider some of the basic characteristics of a charter, though, such as the greater local autonomy it allows when compared to the commissioner form, which must defer to the Maryland General Assembly on a wide range of policy matters. So one question to be addressed is whether Frederick needs this greater autonomy, or if there are advantages to having a more limited scope of powers afforded to commissioners.

Another important issue to evaluate is the virtue of centralizing power in local governance. That is, should we value having five equally empowered commissioners for the sake of promoting greater deliberation, or would things run better with a single County Executive to establish a clear path forward, free of partisan bickering and mixed messages? Those who compare the local government to a business argue that no private company would be able to function with five CEOs debating amongst themselves and setting different priorities for the company’s development. On the other hand are concerns about fair representation of opposing opinions.

Those same concerns are at play in another aspect of the charter debate: while it’s still up to the country citizens to accept or reject any proposed charter, how important is it to have a representative or fairly divided slate of individuals on the committee tasked with drafting it? The current group of people working on the charter proposal were hand-picked by an all Republican Board of County Commissioners (BoCC), and reports have declared that the majority of the group has business ties to development interests. Some see this as a conflict of interest or a "stacked deck," while defenders say that the board is, in fact, diverse in opinion and background, and that either way, whatever they propose still has to be voted in by residents.

These questions lead into a broader examination of the role of democracy in local politics. Who should be able to make the big decisions, and by what means? Should the people be able to choose their own representatives for the charter drafting board, or is it good enough for their elected commissioners to make that decision for them? And a classic democratic conundrum: if some believe it should be put to a vote, and others do not, how do we settle the question—do we vote on it?

We are not only talking about democracy, though, but also questions faced by representative republics. The charter form, like the federal and state governments, often divides the county government from a unified Board of Commissioners with both (although limited) executive and legislative powers into two separate branches: one top county executive, and an elected county council with legislative responsibilities. What are the possible consequences of such a division? Could it create more rather than less bureaucracy and discord? On the council, what is the most fair way to ensure proper representation of the county’s various regions?

There are even technical questions that deserve more consideration, for example, how strict should the criteria be for counting or discarding signatures on petitions? Are the rules fair, or are they made overly complicated in order to discourage petitions and make them more likely to fail? Is it worth going through the process of popularly electing a new slate of charter writers considering the huge predicted price tag of the process to the county?

We should also look at some of the proposed solutions, such as Don Kornreich’s suggestion (Frederick News-Post, 4/17/11) that the BoCC appoint both the current board as well as the opposition slate and give voters a choice between one or the other, or to stick with the current commissioner form. Or, for an even more forward-leaning approach, what about Iceland’s recent attempt at "crowdsourcing" its own constitutional reform effort by inviting its 320,000 citizens to provide suggestions via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?

Finally, since this whole debate essentially boils down to a community’s deliberation of how it wants to govern itself, I will discuss some interesting examples of how communities elsewhere have incorporated participatory democracy into their systems of government. A favorite example is participatory budgeting, made famous by the city of Porto Alegre in Brazil, through which ordinary citizens from different sections of the city convene each year to deliberate how to allocate public funds to infrastructural projects like roads and sewers. The experiment was so successful that many towns and cities throughout South America and Europe have tried to replicate it. Might Frederick benefit from such experiments designed to spur citizen engagement in the local political process?

The 2012 General Election is not as long from now as it may seem. If everything works out on schedule, Frederick will have another opportunity soon to do something both rare and important: peacefully draft, vote on, and perhaps transition to a different system of government. It is a good time to begin not only following the day to day drama of failed petition efforts and appeals, but to really think about what we want from our local government and to discuss the issues with our neighbors. This is not a single-issue question with two distinct and opposed viewpoints, but rather a multi-issue, open-ended discussion with many possible directions to go. And if grass height ordinances can get people fired up, this issue is probably going to light up like the Fourth of July as the proposed charter takes shape and citizens are asked to read and vote on it in the coming months.

Over the last couple issues, the Emmitsburg News-Journal has featured commentary from local citizens, politicians and activists spanning the spectrum of opinions on the charter government process. In the months to follow, in addition to ongoing commentaries from local writers, I will contribute to the discussion by working through some of the major issues and questions raised above, drawing from sources in ancient and modern political philosophy, historical examples of deliberative government change such as the US’s Constitutional Convention, as well as from contemporary works in democracy theory and practice.

Although we may only be talking about changing one county’s government, in a process that has been exercised frequently throughout Maryland, this is nevertheless a continuation of a tradition of peaceful, deliberative democracy in America, its origins preserved in the public political and philosophical debates that comprise the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers. We aren’t doing anything so lofty as inventing a new concept of federalism and divided powers, or doing so under the threat of national dissolution or foreign invasion, but we are taking a moment out of our busy daily lives to pursue the noble calling of citizens at every level of free government: to consider how to live together and manage public resources and services most harmoniously.

Read other articles by Scott Zuke

Scott is a graduate of St. Mary’s College and is currently pursuing
 a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Maryland