Idea of switching to charter government gaining ground

The topic of transitioning to a charter form of government, brought up Thursday by county commissioners, isn't the first time the matter has been raised, but some say now might be the time a change actually happens.

"Two years ago I would have been opposed to it," said Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2. Now, he said, he wants to take a closer look.


"I want to weigh all the options and see what my constituents think," he said.

In the past, Weaver said, he never saw a need for a change in the way the county is governed, and he thought a charter government would just lead to higher costs for residents. But after seeing what the commissioners cannot accomplish without involvement from the state, he said, he has become more open to the possibility.

"It's becoming more and more a part of regular conversation," said Commissioner Doug Howard, R-District 5, who asked Thursday that the commissioners be briefed on the options available at a future meeting.

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- Original Credit: (Maryland Association of Counties)

The state of Maryland permits three kinds of county government: commissioner, code home rule and charter.

Under Carroll's current commissioner form of government, which operates through a board of commissioners, many local decisions require approval by the General Assembly. Code home rule allows counties the option of retaining county commissioners but allows more local autonomy than the commissioner form.

Charter government generally allows for the most local control of government. Most often, it consists of a county executive and a county council.

From 1968 to 1998, county residents voted whether to switch from a commissioner form of government to a charter government a total of six times. Each time, the decision was made to stick with a board of commissioners.

In order to switch the county's form of government, the Board of Commissioners can vote to appoint a charter committee to study and draft a charter for the county. The public can also initiate the formation of a committee by submitting a petition with the signatures of at least 5 percent of the county's registered voters, according to the Maryland Constitution.

Charter committee members would be appointed by the Board of Commissioners unless petitioned by at least 3 percent of the county's voters for a special election to be held to fill the board, according to state law.

The committee would then have 18 months to study other governments and develop a charter for the county to be submitted to the board, after which time it would be publicized and put to a vote by Carroll residents.

Any referendum would likely coincide with the end of the current board's term in 2018, meaning that a change to a charter form of government would not take place until 2022, when the terms of the next Board of Commissioners elected in 2018 would expire.

Why charter? And why not?

In 1998, there was little support among county officials for the idea, said Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin, who worked on the charter committee in 1998 that produced a draft charter that was eventually struck down.

Then, he said, all eight mayors in Carroll requested that the county pursue the idea. But without the help of other higher-ranking officials, garnering enough support was difficult and concerns that some brought up about government cost won out.


"The county wasn't ready for it," he said.

Times have changed since the topic was last discussed, Howard said.

As the county tries to make the pitch for more school funding from the state, Howard said he believes a charter form of government would allow for the county to have a stronger voice in Annapolis.

"It's a huge challenge not to have someone at that level that other counties do that have a county executive," he said.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said he did not see himself supporting a move to charter government at any point in the near future.

"I don't know why it's being proposed," Rothschild said, adding that he has not heard from constituents who would like to see the switch.

While he is opposed to charter government, Rothschild said, he would be willing to look closer at code home rule, another form of government that gives more autonomy to local government than the commissioner form but often less than charter government.

Rothschild said he had concerns that a charter government would open the door to a larger, more expensive government.

"Concentrating more power in the hands of the county executive tends to make it easier to grow government," he said.

Herb Smith, political science professor at McDaniel College, disagreed.

While county residents have proven in the past to be resistant to the idea of charter government, the transition would not necessarily mean that government must grow, he said. How the county operates, he said, is up to citizens to determine in the drafting and approving of a charter.

Smith argues that commissioner governments involve the largest number of politicians in local decision-making. And commissioner-form governments tend to have less local control than those that operate under a charter, he said.

Charter government, he said, was developed in Maryland as a way to unburden General Assembly members who were spending a disproportionate amount of time each session dealing with local bills. It was designed, he said, to streamline local government.

"Legislators were kind of tired of voting on dog leash, dog license sort of things," Smith said. "It simplifies county government."

Keeping charter economical

In Frederick County, which voted to adopt a charter form of government in 2012, efforts were made to keep the switch economical, said Ragen Cherney, chief of staff for Frederick's County Council and a Carroll County resident who sat on the Carroll charter writing committee in 1998.

When Frederick's charter went into effect in 2014, salaries for elected officials were adjusted, he said. Instead of paying the five county commissioners a salary of $45,000 each for a total of $225,000 in salary costs, seven council members are paid $22,500 and the county executive makes $95,000 for a total of $252,500 in salary costs.

Just because some of the jurisdictions that have charter governments — such as more-urban counties like Montgomery County — tend to have larger governments, doesn't mean that the two correlate, Cherney said.

"All charters are not the same," he said.

Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, said that he plans to meet with Frederick County officials about their own experience switching from a commissioner to a charter form of government.

"I think it's the time to move forward with it," Frazier said.

The biggest draw toward a charter government for him, he said, is the autonomy from state government it could provide county officials.


"I just don't think it's the most efficient way to do it," he said of a commissioner form of government. "I'd like to have the right for someone or some people to govern Carroll County in Carroll County."

Nevertheless, state Sen. Justin Ready, R-District 5, said he has some reservations about the prospect of a charter form of government.

"I think there are cons to charter and there are pros as well," he said. "I'm always wary of adding other layers of government."

Ready said he would be particularly interested to see how the county's process for approving taxes would be affected by the change, as well as what the effect would be on the cost of operating county government.

"At this point, I would just want to hear more information," he said.

Decision-making at county level

While Ready said he hears the concerns some county officials have about the commissioner form of government potentially constraining what county government can do, he warned against believing that a change in the county's form of government would be a sort of magic bullet that could solve all of the county's problems.

"I'm not sure it's accurate to say Carroll County is totally dismissed in Annapolis," he said.

But Commissioner Stephen Wantz, who serves as president of the Board of Commissioners, said that experience has shown him that there is a difference in the influence a county executive has compared to a county commissioner at the state level. Also, he noted, Carroll is surrounded on all sides by charter governments.

"I do think it's something that we certainly need to investigate," said Wantz, R-District 1. "I think it warrants a good deal of investigation."

Wantz said he has received questions from constituents about what changing to a charter government would look like and what would be involved.

While he said he is neither for or against the switch at this point, he said he could see some potential benefits that might come with swapping the county's current structure for a charter government.

"I think there's a good possibility it may have some advantages to be able to make decisions at the county level," he said.