This story was updated at 11 a.m. Nov. 7.
In December 2014, Frederick County’s government will change radically with the swearing in of a county executive and County Council after voters Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the move to charter government after years of failed efforts.
The charter will replace the county’s five-member Frederick County Board of Commissioners with a county executive and seven-member council.
The victory was a result of “a lot of hard work and a lot of years,” said Bob Kresslein, vice chairman of a committee that wrote the charter.
“Obviously, the voters looked at it and saw on balance it was a good thing,” said Kresslein, who has been working on the issue since county voters rejected a charter government initiative in 1991.
According to unofficial results from the Frederick County Board of Elections, 58,751 county residents — or 62.4 percent of registered voters — supported the charter, and 35,443, or 37.6 percent, were opposed.
The percentage of registered voters who voted early and on Election Day was 74.27 percent, according to Stuart Harvey, director of the Frederick County Board of Elections. The county distributed 6,800 absentee ballots, and received 3,600 back; those ballots will be counted beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday, Harvey said. Any ballot postmarked by Nov. 6 and received by Nov. 16 will be included. There are 2,102 provisional ballots, which will be counted Nov. 14.
Under the charter form of government, five members of the council will be elected by districts, with two members will be elected on an at-large or countywide basis.
The council will be elected every four years to pass laws and handle the legislative business of the county, with members making $22,500 per year. Members will be barred from serving more than three consecutive terms.
The county executive, who will oversee the various offices and agencies that make up the executive branch, will make $95,000 per year and be limited to two, four-year terms.
The minimal salary for council members drew criticism from some charter opponents, who said its members wouldn’t be motivated to put in enough time to truly learn the issues affecting the county.
The charter drew support and opposition from across political and ideological boundaries, and among a wide variety of current and former elected officials.
Commissioners’ President Blaine R. Young (R) supported the measure, while Commissioners’ Vice President C. Paul Smith (R) and Commissioner David Gray (R) opposed it.
Former commissioners Kai Hagen, Charles Jenkins and John “Lennie” Thompson Jr. opposed it, while former state Del. Sue Hecht, Brunswick Councilman Ellis Burruss and former Commissioner Jan Gardner supported it.
Young said Tuesday night that he was happy but not surprised that the initiative passed.
“I think people got it,” he said.
But residents need to be aware that charter government won’t be a “silver bullet” to fix every problem they have with county government, he said.
Young said he wants the current board of commissioners to take care of as many major issues as possible so the county executive and council can take office with a clean slate.
Thompson said he was surprised at the margin of victory for charter, but that he expected charter to pass. He said there will be a large turnout of candidates vying for the seat.
“It’s like a game of musical chairs where ‘If this person runs for that, I’m going to run for this,’” Thompson said. “Probably the next year will be the intrigue and things going on behind the scene.”
He said the structure of the charter makes the county executive position very desirable for both parties.
“The charter does provide for a very, very strong county executive and a very, very weak county council,” he said. “... That makes the stakes so much higher in who gets to solve those problems.”
Rick Weldon, Brunswick’s city manager, said he was happy to see the change, as he’s advocated for charter for more than 10 years, going back to his term as a Frederick County Commissioner from 1999 to 2001.
“Government decisions are better when it’s one person held accountable to the decisions that get made,” Weldon said. “I’m very excited [by its passing] and frankly surprised by the margin of victory.”
The board that wrote the charter held more than 60 public meetings while drafting the proposal.
Despite the outreach efforts, several voters Tuesday said they didn’t vote for the issue because they didn’t know enough about it.
For others, prior experience with charter government was the deciding factor.
Margot Darby of Frederick said she voted against the measure after her experience living under charter government in Montgomery County.
Matthew Hyland of Ijamsville said he also voted against the charter because he used to live in Montgomery.
But Hyland said he mainly came out to vote in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and hadn’t looked too much into charter.
“I meant to, but I forgot,” he said.
Del. Michael Hough (R-Dist. 3B), who spoke with Hyland before he went into the school, said he opposed the charter because it will raise the cost of county government.
Hough, who believed longtime Frederick County residents would reject the charter as they had in 1991, said he came to Urbana to try and find voters who had moved to the county more recently and might be open to being persuaded to oppose the measure.
He passed out fliers claiming the charter would increase taxes and eliminate a system of checks and balances by restricting the ability of the county’s legislative delegation in Annapolis to oppose laws proposed by the county commissioners.
Under the charter, the county executive will submit a budget each year by April 15, outlining the spending plans for the coming fiscal year.
At least two public hearings must be held on the budget, one in December to get suggestions for what should be in the budget, and the other in March to get feedback on what items have been included.
After the second public hearing, the council will be allowed to eliminate or decrease any items in the budget, except ones required by state law, but would not be able to add to the budget.
Substantive changes to the executive’s budget — those that would affect more than 1 percent of the total budget or more than 50 percent of a particular department’s funding — would require an additional public hearing.
At least four council members would have to vote to approve the budget by May 25. If not, the budget originally submitted by the county executive would become law.
With the results of Tuesday’s election, Frederick joins Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Dorchester, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s Talbot and Wicomico counties with charter government.
Cecil County was scheduled to elect a county executive Tuesday, with its five at-large commissioners becoming council members.
Republican Tari Moore led Democratic candidate Pamela R. Howard with 52 percent of the vote for the Cecil County executive position, according to unofficial results from the Maryland Board of Elections late Tuesday night.
Kresslein said that beneath the back and forth between charter supporters and opponents, it was hard to get an idea of what the average person thought about the proposal.
But after all the debate, he was pleased that charter finally had become a reality.
“Now it’s time to implement it and elect good people,” Kresslein said.
Staff Writer Tripp Laino contributed to this report.