While Frederick County’s political leaders, past and present, were vigorously debating the nuances, real and imagined, of charter government, the majority of local voters apparently was not as conflicted.
In a stunning Election Day vote that surprised all of the pundits, 62 percent of voters — 60,951 of them at last count — sent a loud and clear message: we want charter government. The sweeping nature of the victory was jaw-dropping in what many had expected to be another defeat for the persistent proposal.
Deciding for themselves under the political radar, residents voted for charter government in 67 county precincts, against it in four and registered close votes in only four others, not counting absentee votes, according to a preliminary breakdown released by the Frederick County Board of Elections. Only voters at Wolfsville Elementary School, Valley Elementary, Lewistown Elementary and one precinct at Orchard Grove Elementary rejected Question A, the figures show.
Everywhere else, voters embraced charter government, with a county executive and seven county council members, five of whom would be elected by district and two at-large, to replace the five-member Frederick County Board of Commissioners, which even board President Blaine Young jokingly calls “the five-headed monster.”
Longtime charter advocate and political player Rick Weldon, the city manager of Brunswick who also has served as a county commissioner and state delegate, was among those surprised at the decisive nature of the outcome.
“I’m very excited [by its passing] and frankly surprised by the margin of victory,” said Weldon, whose name often comes up whenever likely county executive candidates are discussed.
Speculation abounds as to why the call for change was so strong.
The charter commission, appointed by the Frederick County Board of Commissioners, spent a year and half and held more than 60 public meetings to come up with a proposal that incorporated what it thought was the best in charter government options. And the coalition backing charter government, unlike the failed effort in 1991, spent money and time educating the public as to the benefits of the switch, which clearly had an impact.
Or perhaps is was growing dissatisfaction with the commissioners’ pro-growth policies that have opened the door to massive development or its funding cuts for nonprofit organizations that have left holes in the county’s social safety net. Maybe some more progressive voters merely wanted to see the county’s “banana republic” days come to an end as soon as possible.
Whatever the reason, a new era of home rule in Frederick County will dawn on Dec. 1, 2014, when the eight elected members of the charter government are scheduled to be sworn in. Until then, there will be two years of political machinations to watch as candidates feel each other out over who will run for executive, who will run for council — and who is considering running for both.
The issues that shape the election will also begin to crystallize — growth vs. no growth; tax cuts vs. expanded services; county employee reductions vs. new hiring; fiscal austerity vs. progressive investment — or however the various philosophical dichotomies get framed. But whoever is elected as county executive will have a clear idea of the path voters want followed.
The good news is that rather than waiting every four years for the pendulum to swing back and forth between growth and no growth, for example, charter government offers greater opportunity to continue that debate at every meeting, in every policy decision and in the adoption of each annual budget. While it is true that charter government is not a panacea for all of the county’s ills, it offers the best opportunity for inclusive debate and self-determination amid the ponderous challenges facing a changing jurisdiction like Frederick County — something voters seemed to instinctively realize.
The next two years will also see what is now a lame-duck form of government continue to carry out its own agenda with a vengeance, justifiably fulfilling a budget-cutting mandate it received in the 2010 election.
Young — a charter government supporter who is currently mulling a run for governor and claims to have no interest in running for county executive — has said he wants to address as many issues as possible before the commission ends it tenure, so the new administration will have a clean slate. For some, that may seem more like an in-your-face promise to continue steering the county on an indelibly-conservative course that can’t be easily undone.
Regardless, the die has now been cast. The people have picked what kind of government they want, and, as charter advocate Bob Kresslein said: “Now it’s time to implement it and elect good people.”