While some living under and working for counties governed by charter say it is more efficient than commission government, opponents are unequivocal in their belief that switching to charter would be a mistake for Carroll County.
The possibility of Carroll changing its form of government from commission to charter has been heavily debated in recent months. The Board of Commissioners enlisted professionals from outside the county to discuss the three forms of government available to Maryland counties at a forum on June 11. Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, presented a town hall meeting June 27 with local officials who largely focused on the benefits of charter.
Meanwhile, the Carroll County Republican Central Committee came out against pursuing a change in the county’s form of government and the Carroll County Taxpayer’s Coalition held sessions at three branches of the Carroll County Public Library in July to lay out their reasons for opposing charter.
On Thursday, the county’s Board of Commissioners will listen to a briefing from staff — at Bouchat’s request — regarding the legal process for selecting a charter writing board and the timeline required to get a proposed charter on the 2020 General Election ballot, according to the July 25 meeting agenda posted online.
Bouchat said in a text message Wednesday that action could be taken to form a charter writing board as early as Thursday.
Under commission, a county is run by a board of commissioners who hold executive and legislative powers. All Maryland counties at one point had a commission form of government, but only six still do with those moving away in recent decades often arguing that counties should not be dependent on the Maryland General Assembly to pass local legislation, as is the case with commission government.
Code home rule offers more independence from the General Assembly, without writing a charter. Region classifications, however, complicate the matter for Carroll, according to Victor Tervala, chief solicitor for the Office of General Counsel for Baltimore city. That’s because Carroll would be the only code home rule county in the Central Maryland class so the General Assembly could roll back a particular home rule power for Central Maryland and it would affect only Carroll.
Charter government is like a blank slate — a group of citizens writes a charter to design the government, and then the entire county votes whether to adopt it. Typically, charter government is headed by an elected county executive and county council, which separates the executive and legislative branches. However, a county executive need not be a part of a charter.
Jan Gardner is in her second term as county executive of Frederick County. She became the county’s first executive in 2014 after the citizens voted to leave commission government behind. Before then, she was a Frederick County commissioner from 1998 to 2010. In general, Gardner said, the county executive in Frederick is responsible for managing staff and administrative functions.
“I do think county executive form of government is much more efficient," Gardner said in a recent interview.
The county executive is paid $95,000 per year plus benefits, while the seven members of county council receive $22,500 annually, but no benefits, according to Frederick’s website. Five members are elected by district and two are at-large, serving four-year terms and no more than three consecutive terms. The county executive serves four-year terms, no more than two consecutively.
Gardner touted the fact that Frederick County has not raised taxes since making the switch. Setting taxes rests with the county council, she said, though Gardner holds power in other matters, like in forming the budget. The council cannot add to the county executive-designed budget except for education items, but it can cut the budget, according to Gardner. Through the budget process, Gardner said she strives to keep the public involved, like by hosting a town hall that is also recorded live on Facebook.
The county executive can propose a budget that would require a tax increase, but it must be approved by a majority vote of the county council, according to Gardner.
In her first two years as executive, Gardner said most of the legislation passed was initiated by her. Much of that was administrative, she said, and the council had several new members. Now that council members are more experienced, Gardner has seen them introduce more of their own legislation, she said.
Gardner has the power to veto, but said she has not exercised that power. The county council can overturn a veto with five or more votes, according to Gardner.
As the executive, Gardner feels different walking into the capital.
“I get a lot more respect in Annapolis," she said. “I just think county executives are viewed as speaking for their counties, because they do.”
Gardner said charter allows Frederick to pass more legislation locally. She estimates two-thirds of bills the county would have to put through Annapolis can now be approved locally. However, Gardner recognizes charter government gives great power to the executive.
“There can be a lot less public process,” Gardner said.
Gardner said she chooses to have press briefings and create steering committees, but she does not have to. She said that comes down to whoever the people elect.
Another individual who witnessed Frederick’s transition is former county council member Kirby Delauter, whose opinion of charter is in contrast with Gardner’s.
“To me, it breeds more corruption,” Delauter said.
Delauter served as a county commissioner for four years then spent another four years as a council member, he said. His term concluded in December after an unsuccessful run for county executive.
He shared his experience with charter government at public sessions held by the Carroll County Taxpayers Coalition.
Delauter said in an interview he is not “trying to sell” one form of government, but does not see “many pros” to charter.
“It’s just not a good form of government," Delauter said.
He would rather see power shared among several commissioners than allowing the county executive to make most decisions.
“Two heads, three heads, five heads are better than one,” Delauter said. “I would much rather have five people of equal power."
From his perspective, council has “zero” power in charter government and makes it more difficult for council members to assist their constituents.
When Gardner took office, Delauter alleged she told council members they were not allowed to speak to county staff directly and had to go through a chain of command, starting with a request to the chief of staff, to get questions answered by the appropriate person.
“In one instance, I waited eight months to get an answer for a constituent," Delauter said.
Gardner said she told council members they cannot individually “direct” county staff and that constituent requests need to go through the county administrator to ensure they get the best response.
Delauter did not always oppose charter. When he was a commissioner, he said he voted to form a charter writing commission. After it was written, Delauter voted against Frederick switching to charter, he said. Though he prefers commission over charter, Delauter said he ran for county executive in hopes of creating change.
Delauter views Frederick’s charter as “very vague” and said it has led to more spending.
“Everyone I talk to hates it,” Delauter said.
His advice to Carroll? Remain as a commission.
Cecil County voted to adopt its charter in 2010, which became effective in 2012.
County Manager Jim Massey views charter in much the same way as Gardner. He said citizens were initially concerned it would cost more than commission, then it was proposed that the five county council members would be paid $25,000 and receive no benefits. The commissioners previously made $30,000 plus benefits, Massey said. The county executive receives $99,000 plus benefits and serves a four-year term, he said. Council members live in their districts but are elected at large and serve four-year terms. There are no term limits.
Massey left Harford County, which is also governed by charter, and came to work for Cecil in 2012, he said. One of the major benefits he sees to charter is its independence from Annapolis.
“I think it’s a more reflective government because we can have more control rather than have to ask Annapolis," Massey said. “By having charter government, you don’t have to depend on legislators.”
As county manager, Massey’s duties include preparing the meeting agenda, writing legislation, scheduling hearings, and keeping a record of council’s activities.
“To the average citizen, it doesn’t really change much," Massey said. “At the government level, we’re much more able to react to problems in a timely fashion.”
In Cecil, elected officials strive to be transparent, he said. Under charter, you know “who to blame” because if there is a tax increase proposed it will be discussed in a public setting, according to Massey.
Director of Administration Alfred Wein Jr. has been with Cecil government since he started as director of planning in 1991, when there were three commissioners. He later served as county administrator, watched the board of commissioners expand to five, then became the director of administration after Cecil switched to charter.
“The primary difference is I have more time to spend on the executive function with my position," Wein said.
He reports to the county executive, helps oversee the budget, and serves as liaison between the executive and department heads.
Wein recalled several times when charter was voted upon and failed, but in 2010 there was a “pretty strong marketing movement” for charter, especially in the business community, he said.
“The community in general thought having one person be the executive leadership versus executive leadership by committee was more effective and in my opinion that’s what carried it through," Wein said.
As a lifelong resident, Wein said he believes charter has been good for Cecil.
“We developed a strategic plan. There’s a vision, there’s a unified group of department heads that are working out to carry the vision. It’s more functional as a government, I believe," Wein said.
Switching to charter comes with cost increases, Wein said, because there are more staff, but he does not believe charter makes it any easier to raise taxes. Only two counties in the state operating under a charter can raise taxes without General Assembly authorization, according to the Maryland Association of Counties.
“You have to do what fits your community,” Wein said.
This is far from the first time a movement has emerged to change Carroll County’s form of government. All past attempts have been unsuccessful, six times via ballot, most recently in 1998. That fact, in addition to arguments that charter would be more expensive, less transparent, and that there is no compelling reason to change, are oft-cited by charter opponents.
Early in the charter discussion this time around, the Carroll County Republican Central Committee declared its opposition.
“Right now, our government’s running fine," committee chairman Dave Brauning Jr. said in a recent interview. “If something’s working successfully, I don’t really see a need for us to look into something different.”
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He described the commission as “a very open scenario” in which “you pretty much see things as they are.” Brauning said he believes Carroll’s population is too small for charter. Cecil’s population is about 102,000; Carroll is about 168,000; and Frederick is around 255,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau website.
“We have a government process right now that works very well," Brauning said.
Taylorsville resident Bruce Holstein, who is a member of the Carroll County Taxpayers Coalition, is a vocal opponent of charter. He said he believes certain politicians want to move to charter for selfish reasons.
“It’s being pushed by politicians, in my view, that create a high-level, high-paying government job we don’t need, but the politicians sure would like to have,” Holstein said in an interview.
Holstein said he prefers commission government, which he views as balancing power among five people. Charter government is not necessary, Holstein said, and he fears it would lead to decisions being made in the dark.
If the commissioners vote to form a charter writing board they would have to name five, seven, or nine people to the board. Within 60 days of the county commissioners making their appointments, citizens may petition to put forth their own slate of alternative appointees, which would lead to a special election. Holstein said he is already prepared to put forth his own candidates and obtain 2,000 signatures to support them.
“It’s sad that we have to fight these fights," Holstein said, “But it’s because people get into positions of power."