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Carroll commissioners to 'listen, learn and lead' to potential charter government

The Board of County Commissioners on Thursday directed county staff to set up time for government officials from surrounding counties to come to Carroll to talk about their transitions from commissioner-style to charter government.

The decision came after the board held a public hearing on charter government Thursday — initiated by Commissioners Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, and Eric Bouchat, R-District 4 — and heard the concerns of multiple citizens, including former District 5 commissioner candidate Kathy Fuller and Long Term Advisory Council Chair Bruce Holstein.

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“Carroll government is already spending at a rate that meets its entire revenue income,” Fuller said. “That's why the board last year could not keep our property taxes to the constant yield — they needed that money to meet the bills. Charter government is expensive.”

She used Frederick County as an example.

“They went from a set of commissioners, county manager and attorney — at $2.5 million — to a county executive, council and county attorney in ’19 — a budget of $3.87 million. This is taken from their budget documents,” she said.

“That's an increase of $1.3 million, or 50 percent growth, in the cost of their main office. Their population grew less than 10 percent in that period. There’s little reason other than the added people and salaries that came with charter government; they used to have excess revenue with commissioner government.”

Holstein said his message was simple.

“No charter government, no tax increases. Yesterday, I read an article in the Carroll County Times about Board of [County] Commissioners’ priorities — including charter government,” he said.

“Why are you resurrecting the idea of charter government again? Carroll County has rejected it six times. … Did you receive a bunch of emails saying, ‘Hey we want charter?’ It’s clearly being driven by a couple commissioners.”

He referenced Commissioner Ed Rothstein’s mantra, to “listen, learn and lead.”

“Commissioners, we elected you to serve us,” he said. “We don't want charter government. We don't want a county executive making $100,000, and we don't want you to raise our taxes.”

Reasoning

Bouchat said his main reason for wanting to transition to charter government is that it is the style of government detailed in the U.S. Constitution.

“What motivates me most on this issue,” he said, “it’s about political science. Inherently written in the Constitution is the division between legislative and executive authority. We have a president and congress, governor and general assembly, mayors and town council. [Commissioner government] is a carryover from British rule.”

With eight counties surrounding Carroll using charter government, he said it is not unreasonable for the county to contemplate a transition.

“It’s about empowering the people. Since we appoint a potentially nine-member commission to write the charter, those individuals would be coming together like the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention — representing all of us, writing the constitution for Carroll County,” Bouchat said.

“For me ... this is about an independence movement, declaring our independence [as a conservative county] from the [largely Democratic] General Assembly.”

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Frazier said he talked with officials from Frederick and Cecil counties recently, and had their charters with him that morning. The information he received is part of what encouraged him to continue pursuing a charter-style government, he said.

The process

County Attorney Tim Burke explained how the county might be able to get a vote for county executive on the 2020 presidential ballot. He said it would be a very tight deadline, and if Carroll missed that deadline, it would have to hold a special election.

Burke said a charter board of nine citizens would need to be appointed by the BOCC and given 18 months to prepare a charter. Once the board completed the charter, it would be sent back to the commissioners and need to be published in the newspaper twice in 30 days.

“Then voters must cast ballots between 30 to 90 days from posting in the newspaper. There is a provision in elections law: you need to have a ballot question to the Board of Elections by the second Monday in August,” he said. “It’s a very tight timeline.”

And in order for it to be on the 2020 ballot, the BOCC would have to have the charter board appointed almost immediately, Burke told them.

Frazier noted that sometimes charters could be written in 12 months, and Burke agreed — stating there have been some examples of charters written in as few as six months.

Special elections

But although Bouchat said a special election might be necessary, he did not have support from the rest of the board.

“I'd like to see it on the presidential election because we have the most voter turnout,” Frazier said. “Last time a special election was held there was 26 percent voter turnout. That's anemic. [At a presidential election] you get 78, 80 percent of voter turnout.”

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said a special election would also be expensive.

“I'm incredibly opposed to special elections,” he said. “They are incredibly expensive and, logistically, a nightmare.”

But aside from the special election discussion, Wantz said he has other concerns.

“Two years ago when this came up I was one of those guys that got beat up a bit, saying we had the appearance of being at the kid’s table when we were at the various meetings,” he said.

“I can see both sides of the story,” Wantz added. “My problem is the speed with which we are attempting to get this done. This is going to be a huge, huge step for Carroll County.”

Timing

“I do appreciate the comment from the public about the ‘listen, learn, lead,’ ” Rothstein said. “Sometimes we have to be reminded to have that ability to listen, not just hear.”

The District 5 commissioner suggested that the board embody the approach he promised by hosting leaders from surrounding counties to discuss what their experiences have been moving from a commissioner government to either charter or code home rule.

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, agreed.

“I’m concerned about money spent, tax rights and [want to] have a chance to ask, ‘How did this affect your local budget?’ ‘How soon, if you went that way, was your tax rate affected?’ he said.

“I think we owe it to the voters of Carroll County to hear this, and to hear the same things we hear. And we look into it. … There’s no rush. I understand your passion for getting it into the 2020 [election], but we’ve been doing this for 100-something years, almost 200, and we’ve gotten by OK.

“I know there’s a passion to change it, but we don't have to rush to do that. I think to take a bit of time and look into everything is fine.”

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Weaver also suggested that when leaders from surrounding municipalities come in to educate Carroll, the meetings be held in the evening so community members who are interested can attend.

As did Wantz, who said he appreciated the passion he saw Thursday morning.

“I think we’re making a big step here by saying: Look, let’s bring in other jurisdictions’ experts. Let’s get educated. Let’s not just table it like we did two years ago,” he said. “Let’s move it forward on a better pace, and perhaps we will be ready for whatever it is, in 2026, [202]4, [202]2.”

The board voted unanimously to start setting up meetings with officials from other jurisdictions — with a sense of urgency to schedule the meetings as soon as possible — so residents and county staff alike could learn more about what bringing a charter to Carroll County would look like, and learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions.

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