Editorial: Develop timeline to get charter on 2020 election ballot

It’s good that the Board of County Commissioners wants to bring in officials from surrounding counties to talk about transitions from the commissioner-style of government to charter government before taking any actions to initiate a move here. However, we would urge the board to also be wary of any attempts to “run out the clock,” so to speak, by opponents of charter before it is given a chance and try to keep it off the 2020 presidential election ballot.

Commissioners Dennis Frazier and Eric Bouchat have been the leading voices in putting together a committee to write a charter, which would then be voted on by the public in either the next regularly scheduled election or a special election.


Having charter government on the ballot for a regular election is preferable to a special election for two reasons. First, having a special election countywide would be expensive; better to do so when an election that is already paid for is happening. Second, there are more people voting on the matter during a regular election. It is difficult enough to motivate a portion of the public to take time to vote during presidential or gubernatorial elections; it’s even more difficult to do so for a single item in a special election. And this is not a decision that should be made by the few.

Already, a few critics have begun speaking out against a move to charter government. It is the same arguments that have been made in the past, and most do not hold water.

The first is the cost. The worry seems to be that a county executive would take a huge salary in addition to what is already being spent on county officials. But that does not have to be the case.

Right now, county commissioners make $45,000 each. Multiply the current salary by five commissioners and that’s a pool of $225,000. Let’s say a charter established a government with an executive and five county council members elected by district, not unlike the current Board of Commissioners. Even if a county executive was paid $100,000, that’s still a $25,000 salary for a part-time council member, which can be justified because council members will have less responsibility than the commissioners as presently structured.

Both of these figures are in-line with what these officials make in Frederick and Cecil counties, the two jurisdictions in Maryland that most recently made the switch from commissioner to charter government. In fact, both actually pay the county executive less than $100,000 ($98,000 in Cecil and $95,000 in Frederick), per the fiscal year 2018 data from the Maryland Association of Counties, the most recent available, and Frederick pays its council members $22,500.

Notwithstanding potential benefits made available to these officials — and there has been plenty of discussion that the existing commissioners’ benefits are already too much — a few thousand dollars in annual savings could be achieved through a move to charter government in salaries alone. A charter could be written that leaves the power to give raises to county officials in the hands of the state legislature, if there are concerns about checks and balances.

The other concern bandied about is that a move to charter would come with a tax increase. This is likely predicated on the myth charter would cost more in salaries, which we just debunked.

Now, this isn’t to say it couldn’t cost more or that an executive and council couldn’t decide to raise taxes or that an elected executive and council couldn’t decide to spend more somewhere that requires additional revenues. But these are all powers held by the Board of Commissioners in the existing structure.

We look forward to hearing from officials from other counties who will hopefully assuage the concerns of some commissioners and the community. However, we would encourage the commissioners to develop a timeline to keep them on track to establish a charter committee and have a charter prepared in time to get it on the 2020 ballot.