Charter, code home rule and commission are forms of government available to Maryland counties — but which is the best fit for Carroll?
Three professionals shared their knowledge of these forms with about 70 residents at Carroll Community College on Tuesday. The Carroll County Board of Commissioners organized the event in order to help inform locals. The speakers offered presentations then took questions from the audience.
While the commission form has been the simple, default approach for many counties, commissioners are often dependent on the Maryland General Assembly to produce change. Code home rule offers more independence from the General Assembly, without writing a charter, but region classifications can complicate the matter. Charter government is like a blank slate — a group of citizens writes a charter to their liking, for all citizens to vote upon — but some fear power can be too concentrated in the executive branch.
Here’s a detailed look at these three different forms.
“One size does not fit all,” said Leslie Knapp Jr., legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties.
Of the 24 counties in Maryland — including county-equivalent Baltimore city — six are governed by a commission form of government, 12 by charters, and six by code home rule, according to Knapp, who served on the forum for the event. Carroll County falls under the commission form, along with Calvert, Garrett, St. Mary’s, Somerset and Washington counties.
Counties provide a wide range of services, including public safety, libraries, parks and education, and the form of government affects how these services are delivered, Knapp said.
The commission form was used by all of Maryland’s counties until the 20th century, according to Knapp. Under this system, county commissioners act as the executive and legislative bodies, but their power is “narrowly construed.”
“They can only legislate in areas that the General Assembly has given them the authority to legislate in,” Knapp said.
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.
While the “biggest drawback” of the commission form is its “reliance” on the General Assembly, Knapp said, though Carroll is not alone in using it.
“It’s a simple form of government,” Knapp said, and at least five other counties seem “happy with it.”
Code home rule
Six other counties went the code home rule route — basically a charter government without the charter, if you ask Victor Tervala, chief solicitor for the Office of General Counsel for Baltimore city.
Code home rule was born out of the need to escape the crushing weight of local bills. By the 1950s, 70 percent of the General Assembly’s bills were local in nature, according to Tervala, “which meant very little time was being spent by the General Assembly on state-wide issues.”
Code home rule was created in 1954 and a few counties adopted it in the 60s, according to Tervala. This form allows commissioners to adopt laws that have a purely local effect without a charter and without the General Assembly’s OK.
Another benefit of code home rule is that planning and zoning processes do not have to change.
“The county commissioners have more authority to legislate, but there is no change of the form of governance components, mechanisms and policies that are used to govern the commission county today,” Tervala said.
While code home rule might seem like a balance between charter and commission, there is a special circumstance that shifts power back into the General Assembly’s court.
Code counties are classified by region, Tervala said: Eastern Shore, Western Maryland, Southern Maryland and Central Maryland.
The General Assembly may pass a law on a home rule subject if it only affects all of the counties in one class, according to Tervala. This could prove troublesome for Carroll, as it would be the only code home rule county in the Central Maryland class if it switched, Tervala said. The General Assembly could roll back a particular home rule power for the Central Maryland class, which would only affect Carroll, he said.
“If the intent of thinking about home rule is to get out of the way of the General Assembly and allow local government to handle local affairs, then perhaps code home rule, because of this classification system, isn’t necessarily the way to go,” Tervala said.
If Carroll County doesn’t choose to switch to code home rule, it also has the option of switching to charter government.
Robert McCord, secretary of the Maryland Department of Planning, spent 16 years as an attorney for Harford County, which operates as a charter government, and was the special assistant to the Harford County executive. He left Harford in April 2015.
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 — it’s up to the people.
If citizens wish to change the charter at any time they can do so by referendum, which requires another election, McCord said.
“The biggest thing about charter government is making sure people understand what’s in the charter and what they can do,” McCord said.
A charter may be governed by a county executive and a county council, thus separating the executive and legislative powers.
Critics of charter government say the county executive can become all powerful. But citizens can write a charter in ways to prevent that from happening, McCord said.
In McCord’s experience, most of the legislation passed in Harford was generated by the county executive. McCord said the county executive can also veto bills put forth by the county council, though that veto power was rarely used in his time in Harford.
To create a charter, county commissioners would appoint a board of citizens to write the charter within 18 months, Tervala said. Once the charter is written, the commissioners would publicize it and have 30 to 90 days to put the option on the ballot. To avoid the cost of a special election, Tervala suggested the county aims to vote the same day as the November 2020 election. With this deadline in mind, the charter writing board would have about 12 months to craft the charter if the commissioners appointed the board in July, Tervala said.
Questions for the experts
It was apparent from the questions asked during the Q&A session that several residents were skeptical of charter government.
People asked about potential for increased expenses in a charter government and whether it would be easier to increase taxes through a charter, and some voiced concerns over an executive being “all powerful.”
Bouchat believes it is “truly insulting” to think citizens could not write a charter that would prevent an executive from becoming too powerful.
“It’s our responsibility to write that into our local constitution,” Bouchat said.
Overall, the answer to questions about cost depends on how a charter is written, the speakers said.
“The idea that charter costs more is really depending on what you put in your charter,” Tervala said.
“It will depend upon how you structure your chapter for that all-powerful situation,” McCord said.
When it comes to tax increases, the General Assembly sets a limit for certain taxes that counties cannot exceed, according to Tervala.
“I think the tax rates are largely more driven by your demographics and your local politics, as opposed to the form of government you have,” Knapp said.
Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R- District 4, asked if a charter government makes a county “stronger” in dealing with the General Assembly and the governor’s office. Bouchat is a proponent of charter government.
“I’m not sure that it makes it stronger in dealing with the governor’s office,” McCord said. “It may have to do more with population than it has to do with the form of government.”
Taylorsville resident Bruce Holstein, representing the Carroll Taxpayers Coalition, a political action committee, wants Carroll to remain a commission. Before the meeting, he handed out fliers stating 10 reasons to keep the government the same. Chief among them was cost and maintaining checks and balances.
“Everyone I know, none of them want charter,” Holstein said.
If the county tries to switch to charter, the citizens’ group will fight back, Holstein pledged.
Taneytown resident Pat Baumgardner found the forum to be informative. It reinforced her opinion that things should stay as they are.
“I’m happy with the county commissioners,” Baumgardner said. “Where I live, they want to see it stay the same.”
Hampstead resident Christopher Tomlinson found himself more open to the possibilities after the forum.
“When people start to learn more about their options they’ll start to be more interested,” Tomlinson said. “I’m willing to entertain some changes.”
Tomlinson, who writes an occasional column in the Times, felt the speakers “debunked myths” about the forms of government.
Town hall to come
While Bouchat believed the forum was successfully educational, he plans to hold a town hall to provide more information.
Bouchat will moderate a “town hall” meeting with three local speakers June 27 at 7 p.m. in the Reagan Room of the county office building. He wants to offer a “personal and local” panel now that the public is more informed.
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Tom Coe of Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services; Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3; and Del. Susan Krebs will offer presentations then take questions.