On Nov. 6, Frederick County voters will face a challenging menu of polarizing state ballot questions, the most controversial of which cover everything from same-sex marriage, to state-funding education for immigrants, to the expansion of gambling in the state.
But buried at the end of that head-scratching list is local Question A, clearly the most important query when it comes to the future of this county: Should charter government replace the current form of county government?
Unlike the other ballot questions or election races, this decision — unfortunately, in a way — is not being driven by a sense of urgency or conflict that can be seen; there is no crisis in confidence in the current commissioner form of government.
But, as they did in 1991, voters will again have the unique opportunity to adopt a form of government that will put the county in a more responsive position to cope with the crises of the future, as growth, with its funding and service challenges, explodes in the years to come.
Simply put, charter government would create two branches of government to replace one. In the place of a legislative entity in the form of a board of commissioners that also helps carry out the government’s executive function, a county executive would be elected to oversee the day-to-day operation of the county, and a seven-member county council, with five members elected by district and two at-large, would pass ordinances.
Much of the criticism — and indifference — about a switch to charter government seems to be driven by variations of arguments that focus on the “four C’s”: that the change is unnecessary, it’s too complicated, it will cost too much and could lead to corruption.
But charter government offers answers to all those fears:
Change — With Frederick County’s generally conservative point of view, if there is not scandal or clear example of failure of the current government, why fix it? And why fix it now? But if not now, when? When area roads are virtually impassable because of never-ending traffic jams? When children in overcrowded schools have to eat lunch in staggered shifts starting at 10 a.m. every day? Residents need and deserve home rule now to better cope with issues like growth. As it stands, lawmakers in Annapolis must first provide enabling legislation for the county to do anything. Do you want lawmakers in the capital city’s political labyrinth deciding what’s best for Frederick, sometimes based on the usual vote-trading? Even if the current arrangement — in which the county’s General Assembly delegation pushes local bills, most of which are approved through “legislative courtesy” — has worked well enough, it is still anathema to local self-determination and an anachronism born in the days when everything was run out of Annapolis.
Complicated — If you have read and understand the separation of powers spelled out in the U.S. Constitution that set up the federal government, with a president wielding executive power and Congress entrusted with the lawmaking authority, then you understand the basics of charter government. And if you are familiar with the governments of the county’s 12 towns and municipalities, which have a mayor or burgess and a town council, then you already have a good idea of how charter government will work.
Cost — Perhaps concerned that the proposed charter creates an annual salary of $95,000 for a county executive, some critics say charter government would cost more due to possible duplication of some functions, or will lead inevitably to bigger government if “tax and spend” politicians try to carve out their own fiefdoms. (On the other hand, some have said that the $22,000 annual salary proposed for part-time council members is not enough to attract strong candidates.) But charter government actually offers more checks and balances to rising costs than the current system. Any county executive, for example, who wants to increase the number of county workers in his budget, still must get it past a seven-member council that would be empowered to cut it or approve it. Some have raised the criticism that the council would be too weak under the proposal (while at the same time saying it may be too powerful because of the subpoena power it would have to conduct investigations). But, guess what, like the Constitution, aspects of the government can be changed by voters through a charter amendment if something doesn’t work or needs fine-tuning. It happens all the time in charter counties.
Corruption — As both sides point out, governments aren’t corrupt, people are. But a mix of political personalities, party affiliations and sometimes even adversarial relationships tend to do more to keep people honest than a majority of five commissioners all elected on the same platform. Charter government offers a divergence of views to co-exist, and gives more people from sometimes ignored parts of the county access to local government. If you don’t like something, you can take your complaint to the county executive, your district council member or either at-large council members. Council members elected by district will be rightly concerned with representing their geographic areas, advocating for parochial issues like more money to fix roads and infrastructure, while the county executive and the two at-large council members may be more concerned about whether all the districts get equal attention for such needs. At the grassroots level, political labels don’t often mean as much as constituencies.
When the backers of charter government argue that such counties have “a seat at the table,” they are correct, regardless of political party. A county executive with thousands of votes behind him is voice that is usually heard in Annapolis — even if that politician is a Republican in a deep blue state. Currently, Frederick County’s voice seems at times to be a political cacophony that drowns out itself.
In the end, charter government will offer more accountability, adaptability and accessibility than the commissioner form of government. It has done so in every county in which it has been adopted. It is inevitable that Frederick County must eventually embrace a more inclusive form of government to better confront the daunting challenges of the future. Beat the rush, do your homework and vote for the fifth “C” — charter government.