With just more than a month to go until the Nov. 6 election, opponents and proponents of a proposal to bring charter government to Frederick County are making their case to county voters.
The movement’s supporters still have a lot of work to do ahead of the election, said Karlys Kline, a member of the Charter Education Coalition, which supports the measure and is making presentations to provide information about the ballot question.
The important local question will be on the ballot, along with several controversial state referendum questions such as whether to expand gambling in the state, allow homosexual couples to marry and provide in-state tuition at state universities to undocumented students.
Kline said that when she mentions the issue, some people ask if she’s talking about charter schools.
She fears it will be easier for voters to vote against something if they don’t have a clear grasp of it.
“Our goal is to make sure we have an educated community on the pros and cons of their type of government,” she said.
Other groups are also trying to inform Frederick County voters on the issue.
The Sugarloaf Conservancy was to host a panel discussion on the merits of charter government Wednesday night at the Urbana fire hall — after The Gazette’s deadline — featuring former elected officials and leaders.
The panel was to include former county Commissioners Jan Gardner, Kai Hagen, Charles Jenkins and John “Lennie” Thompson Jr.; former state Del. Sue Hecht; county charter board Vice President Bob Kresslein; Brunswick Councilman Ellis Burruss; and former county Planning Commission member Bob White.
The group wanted to offer a balanced discussion so the public could hear both sides of the issue, conservancy President Douglas Kaplan said.
“We just think that’s very valuable to allow the public to hear it,” he said.
Hagen said he’s not opposed to the concept of charter government and thinks it’s the way the county will eventually go, but said he doesn’t support the current proposal.
The proposed charter provides for a very strong county executive and weak county council, rather than other potential models that provide better checks and balances to the executive’s authority, according to Hagen.
Hagen also expressed concern about the proposal’s plans for creating council districts, worrying that it would “Balkanize” the county into districts susceptible to partisan gerrymandering.
The proposed charter would establish a seven-member council, with five members elected from districts throughout the county and two at-large.
Under the proposal, the county council would appoint a redistricting committee after each 10-year U.S. census to reconsider the district boundaries.
The central committees of each political party that has at least 25 percent of registered voters in the county would nominate three members of the redistricting committee to be appointed by the council.
The council would also appoint either two or three members who have been unaffiliated with any political party for at least two years before their appointment. The number of people on the committee must be an odd number.
The redistricting appointments would be made by April 1 of the year following the census, with the committee’s report due by Nov. 15.
A public hearing on the plan would be held within 30 days, and the committee’s plan would become law within 90 days of its submission if no other legislation creating new council district boundaries has been enacted, according to the proposed charter.
But Hagan said the party central committees are designed to be partisan, and whichever party controls the council will easily be able to find two or three people among the county’s unaffiliated voters.
Districts certainly create the possibility of gerrymandering, but they also will open up the political process and give people without countywide name recognition and the ability to raise money a better chance of being elected, Hecht said.
She said supports the charter proposal, but still has some concerns about it.
Hecht said she would have liked to see five council seats rather than seven. She also would have preferred that council members be paid more than the $22,000 that has been allocated to make them more full-time legislators.
“Twenty-two thousand dollars is not enough,” Hecht said.
Despite her concerns, Hecht said she doesn’t view the proposal as particularly radical or innovative.
“There’s nothing that is like, ‘Wow, big surprise,’ in this charter,” Hecht said.
Proponents of the charter cite the prestige a county executive would bring, enhancing the county’s position in Annapolis and in dealing with other counties.
“We’re too big and important of a county to have government by committee,” Hecht said of the current system of five county commissioners rather than an executive and county council.
Kline said Frederick County doesn’t have as loud a voice as it should in state issues because it doesn’t have one person for the governor or other officials to go to.
But she admits that wouldn’t necessarily change with an executive under charter government.
“That’s one of the things you just never know,” she said.
Jenkins, who served as a state delegate in 2010 and 2011, along with his time on the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, said he’s afraid a county executive would be surrounded by department heads who will say what they think their boss wants to hear rather than what he or she needs to hear.
Jenkins said he made better decisions after conferring with his fellow commissioners, a process that would be lost with an executive making all the decisions.
“I benefited by listening to people,” he said.
Jenkins opposes the charter proposal, and doubts it will be the cure for as many of the county’s problems as some of its advocates believe.
In 1991, the last time a charter amendment was proposed in the county, 67 percent of voters voted against the measure.
A poll released on Sept. 26 by the Charter Education Coalition found that after respondents were read a series of statements for and against charter government, the number who would vote to change to charter government rose from 27 percent to 47 percent, while the number who would keep the commissioner form of government dropped from 44 percent to 34 percent.
The poll, conducted in June by Opinion Works in Annapolis, surveyed 601 registered voters who said they were likely to vote in November’s election. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.
Hagen was skeptical of the poll’s results, citing the coalition’s stated support of the charter proposal.
Jeanne Ellinport of Ellinport Consulting in Gaithersburg, who helped organize the poll, said the statements for and against charter government that were read to respondents had been gathered from the experiences of the members of the board that wrote the charter, as well issues that had come up in the 1991 effort to pass charter government.
Jenkins wouldn’t make a prediction on whether the measure would pass in November, but thinks the race will be much closer this time.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a runaway for either side,” he said.