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For Carroll County, charter government is delayed — but is it gone? 6 questions answered

The question of whether Carroll County should switch its format of government from commission to charter has cropped up from time to time over the past several decades.

The latest effort to explore the option was put on hold Thursday, when the county commissioners voted to table discussion for 12 months. That means the question will not go to voters on the 2020 election ballot.

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With charter government in a holding pattern, here are answers to some major questions on the topic and where it stands.

Could charter government become reality next year?

Even if the Board of County Commissioners immediately jumps back into the topic 12 months from now — and that is in doubt — it likely wouldn’t appear on a ballot until 2022 at earliest.

After hearing presentations from County Attorney Tim Burke and Election Director Katherine Berry, Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, made a motion to form a nine-member charter writing board. It failed for lack of a second, and didn’t come to a vote.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, then motioned to table, or delay, the charter discussion for 12 months. That motion was approved 4-1, with Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, opposed because of disagreement with that timeline.

Had commissioners voted to create a charter board during Thursday’s meeting, the charter board members would have had 11 months to write the charter — if they wanted to get the question on the 2020 ballot.

Because of the delay, there wouldn’t be enough time for the question to be included on the ballot in 2020. But it could be in play for the 2022 gubernatorial election. Theoretically, a special election could be held between the two, but doing so would appear to be cost-prohibitive.

No commissioner has gone on record saying he is firmly opposed to the idea of switching to a charter government, though it’s not clear how much support the idea has on this board.

What steps would have to be taken?

To begin the process of trying to facilitate a switch to charter, commissioners would first need to vote to establish a charter writing commission.

The commission would have a maximum of 18 months to write a charter, Burke said. A person need only be a registered voter in Carroll County in order to be appointed to the board, he said.

“Once the county commissioners appoint the charter board, you have essentially turned the keys over to the charter board to draft a charter. Your role is extremely limited," Burke said.

Once the charter is written, it would then be given to the county commissioners to publish in the newspaper twice within 30 days, and they would have 30 to 90 days to put the option on the ballot. Holding a public hearing to review the charter is optional.

Registered voters would then decide whether to keep commission or change to charter.

Where do the commissioners stand on the issue?

Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1: Wantz said he’d want the board to have the full 18 months to write a charter.

“I will not entertain a change of this magnitude that doesn’t allow for the maximum amount of time. This is too huge,” said Wantz, the board president.

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Turning to Bouchat, Wantz said he meant “no disrespect,” but he never heard of a push for charter until Bouchat brought it up.

“That’s troubling and challenging for me,” Wantz said.

On Friday, Wantz said he’s focused on the form of government that Carroll residents want to have.

“It should be their push, if they truly want to see a change in government,” he said. “And I haven’t seen that push. I truly haven’t seen that.”

Wantz voted in support of the motion to table. It’s unclear whether he would vote to establish a charter writing commission.

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2: Weaver, who voted against the motion to table, said after the meeting he was opposed to the timeline Frazier set.

“I think the five-commissioner system can work and has worked and is continuously improving,” Weaver said. He is in favor of remaining as a commission government “for a while,” he said, but predicts “eventually we will go to charter government.”

“It’s just a matter of when and how we get there,” Weaver said. “That’s in the future and I don’t know how far.”

It’s unclear whether he would vote to establish a charter writing commission.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3: Frazier, who made the motion to table, said the timeline had been “too compact in order to get this done, get it done properly.”

Frazier suggested aiming for the next gubernatorial election, in 2022, instead of the 2020 presidential election.

“I am in no way in favor of spending taxpayer money on a special election. I think that would be ridiculous," he said.

Frazier voted in support of the motion to table. It’s unclear whether he would vote to establish a charter writing commission.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4: Bouchat has been an outspoken proponent of charter government, including in columns that have appeared on the Carroll County Times opinion page.

On Friday, in an interview with the Times, he described a switch to that form of government as his “objective” and said he would not run for re-election.

“I ran to eliminate this position, and that’s my objective," he said of his current position of commissioner.

Bouchat also pushed back against critics questioning his motives behind the effort. After an opponent of charter government accused him of having his sights set on the county executive seat if the form of government were to be implemented, Bouchat called the claim “complete absurdity,” adding that he doesn’t want to run for county executive — or county commissioner again.

“If individuals have grievances about the potential charter, they shouldn’t oppose it, they should be involved in the process of writing it,” Bouchat said. “At this point, it makes no sense to be opposed to something that does not exist.

“Ultimately, this is about the citizens of Carroll County writing their own Carroll County constitution and declaring their independence from the General Assembly in Annapolis,” Bouchat said. “After all, we are a Republican-majority county, and the General Assembly that oversees us in Democrat-controlled.”

A day earlier, after the Thursday meeting, Bouchat said he felt Frazier made the right move.

“I think, in retrospect of the timeline we have been faced with, that this is probably the best option,” Bouchat said. “The fact that Commissioner Frazier offered to table it for 12 months was a very smart idea.”

Bouchat noted he did not anticipate the process taking this long. He raised the subject at a commissioners meeting in January, shortly after he was elected.

Bouchat said he hopes the extra time will allow constituents to provide more input. He voted in support of the motion to table.

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Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5: During the meeting, Rothstein said waiting one year is a “prudent” choice.

Rothstein voted in support of the motion to table. It’s unclear whether he would vote to establish a charter writing commission.

What might a charter government look like here?

That’s entirely up to how the charter is written.

That said, a charter is generally governed by a county executive and a county council, thus separating the executive and legislative powers.

In order to form a charter, up to nine citizens would write a charter that would be publicized and then voted upon in a countywide election. This allows citizens to build a government the way they want, down to administrative details.

Citizens also have the option to later change the charter through referendum to be voted on in another election.

How can I have a say in the process?

The commissioners would need to vote to establish a charter writing commission in a regular meeting, which would be open to the public.

Plus, Frazier clarified that his motion will not stop commissioners from speaking with constituents about charter or learning more on their own. The motion simply means charter will not be a topic of discussion at commissioner meetings.

It’s also possible that public hearings or town hall meetings would be scheduled to engage with community members, like with a discussion Bouchat hosted in late June.

Citizens can contest the commissioners’ picks for the charter writing commission by selecting their own candidates with the submission of a petition signed by 2,000 registered voters (3% of registered voters), according to Burke. The petition must be submitted within 60 days of the commissioners making their appointments.

If a petition that meets the requirements is submitted, an election among the commissioners’ candidates and the opposition must be held between 30 and 90 days of the receipt of the petition, Burke said. Based on the timing before the 2020 election, in order to get the issue on the 2020 ballot, a special election would have been needed in the case of a petition challenge.

A special election and processing the petition would cost about $400,000, according to Berry. There’s also the option of holding a special election by mail, but it has never been done before in Maryland, Berry said. Her best guess is $200,000 for a by-mail special election and petition processing.

Hasn’t all this been done before?

Yes, Carroll County has followed nearly every step of this process before, although there has never been an affirmative vote from the people.

Residents voted down charter government in the 1992 presidential election, which netted an 87% voter turnout, according to Berry. Charter was considered in a special election on May 5, 1998, and failed. About 37% of voters turned up for that election, Berry said. In the 2006 gubernatorial election, nearly 63% of voters came out — but that time, they voted against adopting code home rule, according to Berry.

The previous timeline had hinged on the 2020 presidential election because voter turnout is typically highest in such an election.

Carroll County Times reporter Leah Brennan contributed to this report.

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