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Idea of charter government is revived, with 2 Carroll County commissioners arguing in favor but no vote held

A year after putting the discussion on hold, Carroll County’s commissioners recently rekindled the idea of switching to a charter form of government, with two advocating for the change.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, raised the topic a little over a year after he made a motion, which was approved, to delay the charter government discussion for 12 months. He and Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, on Aug. 6 pushed for their colleagues to consider the early step of assembling a charter writing committee.

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Writing a charter, which Bouchat has likened to a constitution, would be the first step toward potentially implementing charter government in Carroll County. After a charter is written by a board of citizens appointed by the commissioners, it would not be adopted unless approved in a countywide election.

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 areas of the county. Under a charter, the government is typically run by an elected, full-time county executive and council members. In a code home rule county, commissioners can adopt laws that have a purely local effect without a charter and without approval from the Maryland General Assembly.

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While the commission form has been the simple, default approach for many counties, commissioners are often dependent on the General Assembly to produce change. Charter government enables more change to be enacted by local elected officials, but some critics argue it concentrates too much power in the executive branch.

Last week, Bouchat argued the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of why charter government would be the better for the county. Frazier also advocated for charter, voicing frustration over being dependent on those who work in Annapolis to produce change on Carroll’s behalf. Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, stood strongly opposed to charter at the current time, citing concerns over the pandemic, but said he could see Carroll transitioning to another form of government one day. Commissioners Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, and Richard Weaver, R-District 2, did not firmly place their full support in one side or the other.

The commissioners discussed charter for nearly an hour and did not take a vote. For a future meeting, Frazier wants to know by what date a charter writing committee would need to be created in order to get charter as an option on the 2022 ballot. County staff said they would get him an answer. Wantz was against this move.

The charter debate

During the charter discussion, Frazier voiced a desire to make more decisions at a local level.

“I like the idea of charter because it puts more control of Carroll County in Carroll County’s hands,” he said. “We don’t have to go down to Annapolis and ask for different things all the time.”

Commissioners have to go through the General Assembly for action such as regulation of local roads, sale of county property, animal control, salaries of county employees and more.

Frazier expressed frustration over relying on senators and delegates to bring commissioners’ ideas to Annapolis for approval, noting that only one of his initiatives — graywater reuse— ever passed a vote. The bill, which was approved by the General Assembly and governor in 2018, allows a person to use graywater under certain circumstances for some residential purposes such as household gardening and toilet flushing. Graywater is defined in the legislation as untreated water generated by the use of and collected from a shower, bathtub or lavatory sink.

Bouchat suggested the county would have been better positioned to address the pandemic if there were one person at the helm of the government, like a county executive. He also said assembling a charter writing committee would take the decision out of the commissioners’ hands. Once a charter is written, he said, the citizens vote whether to implement it.

Wantz felt the county has enough going on without trying to transition to a charter.

“I think the timing is just completely wrong here,” he said.

Acknowledging the fiscal repercussions of the pandemic, Wantz said it would be difficult for taxpayer dollars to fund a county executive with a six-figure salary and pay council members. Fiscally, so much is unknown about the county’s finances due to the pandemic that he felt making a move to charter would not be best at this time.

Bouchat argued against that by reminding the board they just recently hired a new fire and emergency services director with a six-figure salary.

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“If we’re going to hire someone as a head of emergency services because we realize how vitally important that is, then we should also have someone publicly elected running the entire county government,” Bouchat said.

Wantz said he didn’t understand the comparison between a department director and county executive.

Although Wantz doesn’t support changing to charter at this time, he said he anticipates one day Carroll County will “need” a county executive. He agreed with Frazier’s point that having a “middle man,” as commissioners, is challenging when they need legislated passed. Wantz acknowledged he’s also not a fan of legislators from other counties voting on policies that affect Carroll.

He suggested code home rule might be a better, more phased-in approach than charter. He didn’t specifically say whether he preferred code home rule over commission.

Rothstein said the debate was over a question of the county government’s purpose and how commissioners fill that role. He was unsure of how much legislation affecting Carroll doesn’t get passed under the current system and wondered whether the bang would be worth the buck if they made a switch.

“I’m not close minded to anything at this point,” he said.

Weaver felt that Frazier and Bouchat made good points, but he questioned the timing. From his perspective, it comes down to whether a commission is an effective form of government for Carroll County. He said he feels the commissioners are reachable and do a good job of representing the people from their districts.

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Bouchat and Frazier will need to persuade one more commissioner to join them if they are to be successful in a possible vote to establish a charter writing committee.

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