As a panel of three public figures — two of them elected officials — touted the benefits of charter government in a town hall meeting Thursday, citizens peppered them with questions that were largely skeptical of that form of government.
About 40 citizens gathered in the Reagan Room of the Carroll County government building to learn and ask questions about charter government. Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, organized and moderated the panel, which featured Del. Susan Krebs, R-District 5; Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3; and New Windsor fire company Chief Tom Coe.
Bouchat has advocated for Carroll to switch from commission to charter government — one of three forms of government, along with code home rule, available to Maryland counties.
County attorney Tim Burke offered an overview of charter government.
“Think of it as your local constitution,” Burke said. “When you have a charter commission established they start with a clean slate, they really do … You sit down and draft a new constitution, the way you see fit for your particular county.”
To form a charter, the county commissioners would appoint a board of five, seven or nine members to write the charter to later be voted upon in a countywide election, according to Burke. There is a way for citizens to contest these appointees.
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, Burke said. He estimated Carroll would need 2,000 voters to challenge appointments.
Once the charter board is formed, its members have 18 months to write it. The charter would then be given to the county commissioners to publish in the newspaper twice within 30 days, Burke said. Holding a public hearing to review the charter is optional. The board of elections must receive the charter by the second Monday in August for it to be on the November election ballot, Burke said.
It’s all in the details
Krebs believes a charter government could give Carroll a single face to represent it and could allow locals to lead locals.
“The powers that are delegated to commissioner counties are significantly more limited than the powers of those counties that have adopted a charter. Keep in mind, that depends on what’s in the charter,” Krebs said.
A charter would allow local elected officials to pass bills without having to go through the Maryland General Assembly as frequently. Currently, commissioners have to get permission from the state legislature to take certain actions, adding time to the process and leading to delegates who aren’t from Carroll voting on issues that affect Carroll, Krebs said.
Some critics of charter government fear the switch would lead to increased taxes. Krebs attempted to allay these concerns.
“Your taxing authority comes from the state,” Krebs said.
The charter writing board can put tax caps in the charter, but there are already some caps set by the state, such as income tax, according to Krebs.
Krebs suggested that a single person, such as a county executive, serving as the single voice of Carroll would be a more effective advocate than five commissioners.
“Right now, we have five part-time people that legislate,” Krebs said. “We do not have a full-time countywide elected official answering or accountable to all the citizens.”
Frazier came right out of the gate in support of charter government.
“I am a proponent of charter,” he said. “I like the idea of locally elected officials deciding what happens.”
Looking at the county as a business, Frazier believes it would make most sense to have a single person at the top.
“Can you think of another half-a-billion-dollar business in this country that has five CEOs?” he said. “It’s not the most efficient way to run the government.”
Frazier expressed frustration over getting delegates in the General Assembly — in which Democrats hold a supermajority — to vote in favor of conservative Carroll County.
“They don’t know our issues as well as we know our issues,” Frazier said. “Who better to decide what happens in Carroll County than locally elected officials from Carroll County?”
Frazier said he wants to see charter government on the 2020 ballot, but said he could not be favor of charter until he saw it written.
Coe shared his perspective as a volunteer in emergency services. He later noted that he spoke as an individual and not on behalf of his fire company.
“Carroll County is a growing county … It’s really time Carroll County has a full-time government official, as Delegate Krebs said, the face of Carroll County that presents a clear and consistent vision and direction for the county,” Coe said.
Having five bosses in the commissioners can lead to mixed messages as they lead county departments, Coe said. He’s also seen how difficult it can be to get local legislation approved at the state level. Local issues get pushed to the bottom of the priority list and are put off to the end of a session, Coe said.
“I think the fallacy is out there that charter government’s big government … I think if you look at most folks that have switched to charter government, at the county level, they've been growing jurisdictions where service demands have been higher,” Coe said.
In the end, how the charter is written determines its success, according to Coe.
Residents demand answers
Carroll countians at the town hall asked questions by writing their queries on note cards that Bouchat then read aloud.
One person asked if the speakers would pledge not to run for county executive, should the county switch to charter. Coe was the only one who gave a definitive answer, enthusiastically saying he would not run.
Another resident noted that a switch to charter government was voted down a number of times in the past and questioned whether people are afraid of change. The last time charter was on the ballot was 1998, which was also when people could vote whether to switch to a five-commissioner government, Krebs said. She believes the vote split over those options, and said the outcome was also affected by the spread of “misinformation.”
Frazier invited citizens who are interested in serving on the charter writing board to contact the panel, as he hopes the board would be composed of people from all five districts.
One questioner, in favor of remaining as a commission county, stated, “Why fix something that isn’t broken?”
Krebs said discussing charter is about exploring ways to make a great county better.
Frazier likened it to a horse and buggy. Although a horse and buggy is still a viable mode of transportation, people use cars because they are more efficient — not because the horse and buggy is broken.
Residents questioned the cost of switching to charter, voicing a fear of higher taxes or becoming like Frederick County or Baltimore.
Coe suggested tax rates could go up regardless of the form of government. He reminded citizens that taxes fund services.
Discontent brewed among the audience as some abandoned the note card system and spoke directly to the panel. Some people called out and interrupted the speakers.
One person asked, via note card, if the panel believed those who made campaign contributions to elected officials should not be appointed to the charter writing board.
The panel sat quiet a moment before answering.
Frazier said someone who made a large contribution to his campaign maybe should not be on the board. Krebs did not answer.
The question-and-answer session spanned about an hour, bringing the event to a conclusion near 9 p.m.
Afterward, Bouchat expressed appreciation for the full house in the room.
“I’m extremely happy,” he said. “Our citizens have legitimate concerns.”
He encouraged residents to put their opinions in writing and send them as letters to the editor in the Times.
Carroll County Breaking News
As far as the note cards went, Bouchat said he chose the system to allow many people to ask questions.
Finksburg resident Donna Sivigny felt the event was educational.
“I was here to hear more,” she said.
She said she’s encountered citizens who have the mentality of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”
“I think there’s a lot of people that want the status quo,” Sivigny said.
Bill McKeel of Keymar said he wants the commission government to stay because he believes it has checks and balances. He felt the panel was one-sided.
“They were determined to push charter in spite of what the people want,” McKeel said. “It’s almost like they have blinders on.”