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Carroll County commissioners vote down motion to create charter writing committee

For more than a year, Carroll County’s Board of County Commissioners tabled the idea of switching from being governed by a commission to a charter form of government.

On Thursday, the county commissioners voted 3-2 against forming a committee to write a charter for the potential change.

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“It’s troubling to me that my colleagues don’t want to empower the public and it’s puzzling that they don’t want to allow the people to elect a chief executive to run the county government,” Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, said.

Bouchat first suggested the commissioners initiate charter board in an effort to “bring independent government to Carroll County,” and transfer governing power from the board. Bouchat said his motivation for this initiative stemmed from former state Sen. Bob Kittleman and The Federalist Papers.

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While Bouchat and Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, voted to pass the motion –– for different reasons –– the other three commissioners voted against it.

Frazier noted that he thought taking more control locally was an idea that would resonate with a majority-Republican county.

Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, countered that, to him, a less restrictive form of government is the more Republican approach.

Rothstein said that after his experiences as a garrison commander at Fort Meade, which he called a form of charter government, and as an economic developer in Anne Arundel County, which operates under a charter, he understood the value charter could potentially bring to Carroll.

"So before coming into this role, I was thinking this should be the direction to go. But the more I learned and the more I developed into this role, the less I thought about charter and the more I thought about the community and what is best for Carroll County,” Rothstein said.

The county last year held two town hall-type events to explore the three forms of government under which Maryland counties operate: commission, code home rule and charter. Carroll currently is governed by five commissioners who represent different districts of the county.

Under a charter, the government is typically run by an elected, full-time county executive and council members. The commissioners decided to table consideration of charter in the summer of 2019. The idea was revived this past summer with the idea of, potentially, having a charter written and then voted upon in the 2022 election.

On Thursday, Frazier made his point during the debate that the county would not be able to accurately decide on whether a charter would be useful if one had not been drawn up to even consider.

“How do you know you don’t want the charter, if you have not seen the charter?” Frazier questioned. “They could even write a charter that I don’t like, and I wouldn’t vote for it –– but I wouldn’t know because I have seen it.”

Both Bouchat and Frazier wanted a nine-member committee to write a charter, made up of five women and four men, consisting of five Republicans, two Democrats and two members of unaffiliated parties.

Commissioner President Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, said he felt the charter committee was unnecessary because he believes the current form of government works well.

“We’re growing government if we do this,” said Wantz. “One of the biggest problems I see is incentivizing a divided government –– which we don’t have.”

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Wantz said he was concerned about the possible shift of government given the potential financial constraints placed on the county budget in the next two to five years.

Under the commission form, Carroll County’s elected leaders typically have to depend on the Maryland General Assembly to make legislative changes. But the charter government would allow change to be made by local officials.

“Even if I was successful today, that referendum would not be passed on until the 2022 ballot and then we would not even vote on that new government until 2026. But theoretically, if the next Commissioning Board votes to create [a charter], it still wouldn’t possibly be enacted until six years from now,” said Bouchat.

Despite the setback, Bouchat said he still plans to work for the modernization of an independent government for Carroll County as a Republican county in a Democrat-controlled state.

Rothstein and Wantz both said that if the community truly wants to change the form of government, citizens can write a charter and petition to get it onto the ballot.

“The people may indeed reach out,” Wantz said.

“This may be the stimulus,” Rothstein said.

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