Frederick County panel split on merits of charter government -- Gazette.Net


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This article was corrected Oct. 10, 2012. An explanation follows the article.

A local ballot measure that would change Frederick County’s form of government from a board of commissioners to one overseen by a county executive and county council failed an initial test Oct. 3, losing an unofficial straw poll following a panel discussion.

The discussion, hosted by the Sugarloaf Conservancy at the Urbana fire hall, featured a “who’s who” panel of former county Commissioners Jan Gardner, Kai Hagen, Charles Jenkins and John “Lennie” Thompson Jr., former state Del. Sue Hecht, Brunswick Councilman Ellis Burruss, Bob Kresslein, vice chairman of the board that wrote the proposed charter, and Bob White, former chairman of the county’s Planning Commission.

Burruss, Gardner, Hecht and Kresslein support the proposed charter, while Hagen, Jenkins, Thompson and White oppose it.

After the debate, people who attended could participate in an unofficial straw poll on whether they supported or opposed the proposed charter.

Of the roughly 200 people who attended, 89 cast votes on the issue, with 18 ballots approving the charter, 49 opposed and 22 undecided, according to the conservancy.

Prior to the vote, the panelists argued the merits and deficiencies of the proposal.

The charter isn’t perfect, but if people think it will provide better government, they should vote for it, Burruss argued in his opening statement. If not, they should vote against it.

Thompson and Hagen both argued that there’s nothing wrong with the county government the way it is that would merit making such a drastic change.

One of the questions centered on whether a charter government with a county executive would give Frederick County more clout in Annapolis, as advocates have claimed it would.

It really depends on who the executive is, Hecht said.

When she was a delegate, it was clear to her that Frederick County was missing out on opportunities to counties that had a county executive as a single point of contact.

“We need a form of leadership down there all the time,” Hecht said.

White argued that if the county had a Republican county executive, he or she would be unlikely to have much impact in a state government dominated by Democrats.

Kresslein replied that there have been a number of Republican county executives around the state, and they’ve been able to effectively get things done.

The power given to a county executive by the proposed charter also drew a number of comments from the panel.

Gardner said it’s more efficient to have one person elected by the voters to oversee day-to-day functions such as sending a letter of support for a local non-profit organization seeking grants.

The management component of the charter is one of its strongest parts, she said.

On the other hand, Thompson said the executive would be solicited by special interests, and fail to control spending by promising people what they wanted to gain political favor.

Under the proposed charter, the executive would submit a budget to the council, which would be able to cut items but not add to them.

A model with a strong executive was one of the choices made by the charter board that wrote the measure, said Hagen, who argued that it would move the process of creating the budget behind closed doors.

“Transparency is one of the huge advantages of our current system,” he said.

Afterward, Jim Ridgely of Frederick said he found the panel extremely helpful in giving him an understanding of the issues.

Ridgely said he left the meeting opposed to the charter idea, concerned about the strength of the executive.

Gary Thuro of Urbana said he also found the panel useful.

He said he hadn’t read enough before the meeting to make a decision, but the charter opponents convinced him the measure put too much power in the hands of the county executive.

“I came from Montgomery County, and I didn’t like what I saw down there,” Thuro said.

But Dick Menzer, a retired high school English teacher from Montgomery County who’s lived in Frederick for about 10 years, said he went into the meeting with an open mind and now will likely support the charter.

One advantage of a stronger executive is that it makes one person politically accountable to voters.

“That’s what the system is designed to do,” Menzer said. “It’s designed to have the leaders risk everything to get things done.”

rmarshall@gazette.net

This article was corrected for comments made by former county commissioner Jan Gardner.