The meeting of the Frederick County Charter Board this past week held no surprises for this attendee, who had seniority over all the board members. My involvement in the issue goes back more than 40 years, and much of what I heard was a repetition of about 20 meetings concerning a change to a charter form of government.
I always have said the form of government doesn’t create a better government, but it is the people in office who do. And the large counties of Maryland, which have had charter government for dozens of years, have had their share of poor government decisions — because of poor leadership.
That is not to say there have not been poor administrators in code or commissioner forms of county government. In fact, all forms of government have suffered from the leadership or lack thereof and from those more interested in politics and how they can benefit.
Having worked in the Washington, D.C., area for a large company for more than 20 years, I was exposed to Montgomery and Prince George’s county governments. Montgomery was known as government by committee. Most major issues were deferred for endless study by committees.
One which stands out in my mind is the Intercounty Connector. When we started Montgomery Village, the company for which I worked was required to reserve a right-of-way for a road that would connect Interstate 270 near Gaithersburg with Prince George’s County.
The right-of-way was changed numerous times, as neighborhoods argued against putting the busy road in their backyards. Forty-five years later, just a little more than a year ago, the road opened revealing traffic problems created by all the changes and a need for further study.
And Prince George’s County has had its problems with elected and appointed officials who do not understand their fiscal and legal responsibilities. One recent county executive suggested his wife’s underwear was the perfect place to put illegally-gained money.
The cost of maintaining separate staffs for the county executive and the commissioners has been a common problem for these counties as they try to divide the responsibilities of officials. Even in Howard County, a former county executive threatened to sue the council for intruding into what he considered his area of responsibility.
A cost-effective efficient county government depends on the people elected to office more than the form of government. Politics remains politics.
As I sat in Winchester Hall, I was struck by the request from several citizens that the committee should prepare a handout comparing both the costs, savings and operating problems of charter versus commissioner government. Those differences have not been publicized enough for everyone to be able to compare the two modes of county government.
I was pleased that a dozen or so citizens said they liked the concept of charter government, but the document being created needed major changes. Some were not happy with creating districts. Several did not want a strong county executive who had all the power. Others felt the percentages needed for citizens to petition were too high.
One group indicated it was forming a coalition to inform the public about charter government, when the final organizational document is approved.
Hopefully, they will have factual answers to why we might change to charter. They should study the history of Frederick County’s government and why people like state Sen. Charles Smelser, who represented this commissioner led county, had an amazing presence in the Annapolis. He was highly respected.
The charter writing committee has done a yeoman’s job in a positive manner. But the past headlines made by nearby charter governments remains a hurdle which cannot be denied.
Paul Gordon, a local historian, was mayor of Frederick city from January 1990 to January 1994. His column appears weekly. Reach him at email@example.com.