The last time Baltimore County took a comprehensive look at its charter, politics in Towson were aboil. It was 1989, and a who's-who commission of county leaders, including former County Executive Don Hutchinson and future executive James T. Smith Jr., served on a charter review commission that considered issues ranging from ethics reforms to whether the merit system should be relaxed for top officials in county departments. Meanwhile, though, the county was under a tax revolt. Residents collected petitions to place a hard cap on county property tax collections and even tried to put a measure on the ballot returning the county to a commissioner system of government.
The charter review commission rejected some of the more controversial ideas it considered, like increasing the number of seats on the County Council, creating a county-wide elected position of council president and lifting the two-term limit for county executives. (There was some concern at the time about whether then-County Executive Dennis Rasmussen would benefit from that last provision, but county voters made it a moot point by handing him a surprise defeat in 1990.) The voters rejected the tax cap idea and two of the commission's proposed amendments, which would have increased the county executive's power over top-level appointments and increased the size of the county's Board of Appeals. Other minor reforms, including a change to how vacancies are filled on the county council, made it into law.
A lot has changed in Baltimore County since then. Its population has grown substantially larger and more diverse, and in many areas it has become significantly urbanized. It's worth considering again whether changes should be made to its charter, and that's the purpose of Question A on the Baltimore County ballot. Sponsored by David Marks, a Towson-Perry Hall Republican, and supported unanimously by the council, it would require the county to impanel a review commission in the seventh year of each decade to study the charter, consider proposals for changes and make any recommendations it sees fit.
It's not an inherently liberal or conservative idea. A commission could propose a tax cap (though we hope not) or changes to the budget process, like giving the council greater power to move money around (again, please don't). It could recommend creating more council districts — an idea worth considering, given that each council member now represents nearly 120,000 people and that more districts would likely mean greater diversity in the legislative branch. It could handle relatively mundane issues like renaming county departments.
Several other counties have similar requirements for periodic reviews of their charters. Howard County, for example, does it every eight years. The most recent round, from 2011, resulted in recommendations designed to give the County Council more time to consider complex legislation, ease the requirements to petition local laws to a referendum, and align local open records laws with their state equivalents. Montgomery County has a permanent charter review commission, which issues recommendations every two years. Its 2016 report calls for a charter amendment to allow for special elections to fill any vacancy in the office of county executive. It plans in the next two years to study the question of term limits for council members and executives, council redistricting procedure, and the requirements to circumvent the county's property tax cap.
The 2012 charter review in Anne Arundel County came at a propitious time. Initially, the group had decided against recommending any changes to the process of filing vacancies on the County Council. Then it reconsidered after the council deadlocked over whom to appoint to serve out the term of a member who went to jail on federal tax fraud charges, failing after dozens of votes and multiple meetings to settle on a candidate. In light of those events, and the indictment that spring of then-county executive John Leopold on a number of misconduct counts, the commission also recommended changes to the procedure for removing council members and executives from office. Not surprisingly under the circumstances, the voters of Anne Arundel voted in favor.
Baltimore County isn't as shaken up politically as it was in 1989, nor is it as scandal-ridden as Anne Arundel was in 2012. But a periodic review of the county's basic government structure is still a good idea. We urge county voters to support Question A.