- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
This story was updated at 9 a.m. July 24. See explanation below.
The Charles County Charter Board presented to the county commissioners Tuesday its final charter that if approved by voters in the Nov. 4 general election will overhaul the local government to one led by a county executive and county council.
The commissioners voted unanimously to accept the charter, but the document would have gone before the voters regardless. Per state law, the charter must be published in a local newspaper prior to appearing on the ballot.
If approved, the charter will replace the current form of government with a five-member board of commissioners — known as code home rule, in which the commissioners perform executive and legislative functions — with a county executive and five-member county council, the latter of which would handle legislative matters.
“It is our collective belief that the charter we have proposed for county government includes a number of measures that will make that government more responsive to, and more easily directed by, the citizens it serves,” said charter board Chairman Leonard C. Collins Jr., who spoke to the commissioners on behalf of the board. “We believe it will make it easier for citizens to identify which elected officials are responsible for policies that the citizens either support or oppose, and for the citizens to be able to assign responsibility to those officials as appropriate at the ballot box.”
Currently in Maryland, 10 counties are run by a charter form of government.
“Every past and current public official who spoke to our board favored a charter form of government,” Collins told the commissioners. “As we progressed through this process, we became more convinced that Charles County could benefit from a charter form of government. We agree that the government we have does not exemplify the effective, responsive and efficient functioning government our county deserves.”
Collins gave several reasons in support of a shift to charter government, including the separation and distribution of powers between the county executive and council.
“Charles County employees need one boss, not five as with the current form of government,” he said.
Under the charter, the county would be divided into three election districts that would each elect directly one council member. The remaining two members would be elected by county voters at large. The council would choose its presiding officer annually.
Currently, all five commissioners are elected at large. There are four commissioner districts, with the only requirement being that each district’s respective commissioner live within its boundary. The board president must reside within the county.
The first election for county executive and county council would be held in 2016 and thereafter during gubernatorial election years.
Collins said charter government would provide checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches and provide citizens “a greater role in managing and directing their government” via referendums and the ability to amend the charter.
The charter also would provide a blend of district and at-large representation on the county council, “allowing for a balance of district and countywide interests.”
Collins said the increased costs of a charter form of government “are negligible,” at about 0.02 percent of the current budget.
The charter also would establish a local budget process mirroring the state’s — the executive would propose a budget that could only be cut by the council.
“As a result, voters will know who to assign credit or blame for overall levels of spending and how that spending it prioritized,” Collins said.
The executive also would be able to veto legislation, which could then be overruled by a minimum 4-1 vote from the council.
The county executive would make $150,000 and receive the same benefits available to county employees. Council members’ salaries would be set at $36,000, while the presiding officer would make $40,000. Council members would be considered part-time employees and receive no fringe benefits.
The county commissioners currently make $48,000, and the president makes $58,000. All receive benefits.
Council members would be limited to serving three consecutive terms, while the county executive could not serve more than two consecutive terms. There are no current term limits set for the commissioners.
A person would need to be 25 and a registered voter in the county for two years to run for county executive. County council candidates would be required to have lived in the county for a year and in their district for six months.
The charter would cap the county’s indebtedness at 3 percent of its real property tax base and 15 percent of its personal property base, a change from the draft charter that was presented during four public hearings in the spring, which limited the county’s debt to 5 percent of its real property tax base.
“With an eye toward fiscal responsibility and solvency, we have in this charter restricted the county debt to lower than allowed by state law and lower than any other county in Maryland,” Collins said.
Another change in the final charter from the draft is a provision allowing the council to increase the county’s contribution to the pension and other post-employment benefits fund if the executive’s proposed budget “fails to fully fund the actuarially determined annual required contribution” for both. It is the only budget item the council may increase.
The charter would establish a new process by which referendums on most local laws could be initiated with signatures from 5 percent of the county’s registered voters.
It would also set up a review commission and recommend an evaluation of the charter at least every 10 years. Per the state constitution, charter amendments could be approved by the council or by either 20 percent or 10,000 of the county’s registered voters.
Article XI-A Section 5 provides these figures to approve a proposed amendment which must then be submitted to the voters in the next election for approval or denial.
“A charter government is called the people’s government because it gives the people a constitution — and only the voters or the people can change the charter, not the council, not the executive,” Collins said.
Each of the commissioners commended the charter board members for the 18 months they spent drafting the charter.
“So are you guys considered framers now?” commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) asked.
“Founding fathers and mothers,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said.
The story was updated to clarify the process for amending the charter.