The Annapolis City Charter, the city’s founding document, was adopted more than 300 years ago at the turn of the 18th century. It established the city’s operation, including the roles and powers of the mayor, City Council and other officials, as well as city elections, finances and other functions.
In the ensuing three centuries, the charter has been amended numerous times and since the mid-1990s, the Annapolis City Council has appointed a group of residents to volunteer their free time to meet, deliberate and craft a report on ways to improve the document.
Last month, the 2021 Charter Revision Commission, comprising nine residents, submitted to the council a dozen recommendations to do just that.
The report includes recommendations to change when and how the city conducts its elections, expand its election board and make it more difficult to amend the charter. Others seek to make Annapolis a more inclusive and fair place, one that considers the realities of the 21st century that could impact the city, namely climate change.
The commission acknowledged that some of its recommendations could be better suited as a City Code change rather than a charter amendment. The group also identified grammar, obsolete language and overly long descriptions that could be edited or eliminated; and suggested the use of gender-neutral pronouns, all of which they say would make the charter a better and more effective document.
The findings are the result of more than a dozen virtual meetings and an estimated 1,000 hours of work over six months. The full report can be found at https://www.annapolis.gov/1782/Charter-Revision-Commission.
Here are some takeaways from the report:
Dating back to the 1990s, previous iterations of the Charter Revision Commission have questioned whether the city should allow candidates from any party to file for a single municipal election. Called, nonpartisan elections, the vast majority of Maryland municipalities use such a system.
No City Council has sought to change the current system, which holds closed primaries where voters registered to the two major parties vote for candidates from within their party to become the nominee in the general election. Third-party voters cannot vote in city primaries; their candidates may file to run in the general election.
The Charter Revision Commission recommended the City Council approve a ballot question in advance of the next city municipal elections in 2025 that would propose a charter amendment to move the city to nonpartisan elections.
Proponents argue “political parties are largely irrelevant to providing city services, such as water, sewer and refuse collection,” the commission wrote. “Cooperation between elected officials in a system that prohibits the use of party labels is more likely; turnout is at times higher in non-partisan races; and by eliminating the major political parties from controlling the candidate access to the ballot, greater numbers of candidates will seek office.”
In May, Alderman Fred Paone, R-Ward 2, introduced a charter amendment to make city elections nonpartisan but failed to garner support for the initiative.
Ward 2 City Council candidate Scott Gibson, a Republican, has said if he is elected, his first piece of legislation will be related to implementing nonpartisan elections.
Other sitting council members have voiced support for elections system changes but have cautioned that other changes, such as implemented ranked-choice voting, would also be needed.
In the 2021 primaries, voter turnout increased by 20% thanks in part to a new vote-by-mail system implemented by the city, the first of its kind in Annapolis history.
Align city elections with presidential elections
The Charter Commission recommended the City Council approve a second ballot question for the 2025 election, proposing a charter amendment to align municipal elections with the presidential elections.
The city currently administers its elections on off years between presidential and midterm elections.
The commission pointed to the drawbacks of the city being out of step with other election cycles, including a resultant low voter turnout. It also forces the city to administer its own elections, an expensive and time-consuming endeavor, they argued.
In recent years, the Anne Arundel County Election Board has helped assist the city by providing extra staff and voting infrastructure.
Not everyone supports the proposal.
Mayor Gavin Buckley, who stormed to an unexpected victory as a Democratic underdog in 2017, said he wouldn’t change the current cycle. Buckley is seeking reelection in the Nov. 2 general election.
Off-year elections allow city issues to be at the forefront of voters’ minds, Buckley said, plus the campaign teams from other candidates in county, state and federal races have another opportunity to help city Democrats run their campaigns in off years.
Expand the Board of Supervisors of Elections
In another election-related change, the commission recommended the Annapolis Board of Supervisors of Elections be expanded from three to five members. The move would allow for increased representation of city voters, break up the board’s substantial workload and give the body a chance to work on a committee basis, the commission argued.
At present, the board’s three members are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council to oversee and administer the city’s elections. It is made up of a majority of the members from the leading party of the state; in Maryland’s case Democrats.
More board members would be beneficial, said Rebecca Brenia, the board’s Republican member who was appointed to the position in August, a few weeks before the city held its primary elections.
“I’ve been in the role for a really short period of time during an extremely busy season for the (board),” Brenia said. “Having more people would help evenly distribute the work, and also just better serve the city by having more people thinking about election-related issues and more expertise being offered by additional members.”
The commission acknowledged that additional changes to the City Code would be needed to ensure an expanded board represented a diversity of political parties and populations in the city.
Supermajority for charter amendments
The City Charter requires a simple majority by the City Council to approve a charter change. Typically, other bodies require a two-thirds or three-quarters majority to pass such changes, the commission found.
The commission proposed requiring a minimum of seven yes votes to pass a charter amendment, arguing that because a quorum of the council is five members, hypothetically, a charter amendment could pass with as few as three votes.
“The intent of this proposal is to ensure charter amendments truly reflect the majority of its citizens as represented by their City Council members,” the commission wrote. “Such a vote would clearly represent an under-representation of the larger legislative body and over time would undermine the public’s trust in its leaders.”
In its research, the commission found that as of June 2021, 24 charter amendments had been introduced since 2011 when the last Charter Revision Commission met. Twenty of those have been filed in the last six years; 15 were adopted.
The most recent charter amendment, passed in June, created the Office of Community Services.
The commission’s report features other changes that clarify the separation of powers between council members, the mayor and other city staff; define how a mayor who becomes permanently disabled would be replaced; and improve legislative procedures; and explicitly state what a quorum is and how many votes are needed to pass an ordinance.
Elsewhere the commission recommends a second paragraph be added to the charter’s preamble that includes commitments to protecting the city against climate change and prioritizing diversity and inclusion in all city functions.
Their final suggestion is for future Charter Revision Commissions to include residents from at least five different wards “and reflective of the diversity of the citizens of Annapolis.” This year’s commission included six members from Ward 1, two from Ward 8 and one from Ward 3.