Minnich: The good, bad and ugly of charter government

Yes, the charter government question is back — or it never went away, despite what the parochial locals want.

What is charter government (so many are passionate about it, far fewer know what it is)?


Charter refers to a document that lays out the parameters for governance at the local level. At the national level, we have a constitution which sets forth the division of powers between an executive, a legislature and a judiciary branch. At the state level we have a charter; towns and cities have charters, community associations are run by the equivalent of a charter, and many businesses are chartered.

How is it different from county commissioner form of government?

Like a town or city with a mayor, charter government has an elected executive and a council or board of legislative members which may make local laws and ordinances. Commissioner government powers are limited and consists of a board of three (or five) part-time elected members of equal authority. It has the responsibility of managing the budget, including establishing a tax rate. But it must go through the elected delegation to the state legislature to make or change laws.

The state created the commissioner form of government to serve as a “roads commission” with an eye toward getting all the dirt roads paved with a tar and chip surface, or at least a blend of gravels called crusher run. The roads commission met a couple of days a month or a week — whatever was required. It was a part-time position and was made up of three respected farmers and businessmen. Until Julia Gouge, former mayor of Hampstead was elected, it was an all-male role in Carroll County.

A town has a mayor to act as executive and a council to advise and consent. A town can make local laws and ordinances. Because commissioners’ powers come from the state, important legislative decisions must be passed first by getting the approval of the county delegation to the state government in Annapolis. Counties and cities with charter rule do not have to get state approval for routine local legislation.

Which is where we get to the good, bad and the ugly.

Charter is good if you believe in the most local form of local government. It’s the essential idea behind democracy.

It’s bad if you would rather weaken local government powers and keep the county more dependent on state politics or the control of the delegation.

Charter is good if the members of the council are independent and serve as a check and balance to the executive position.

Charter could be good if enough people are engaged; it will be bad if resolution of public issues is left to the self-serving who use sketchy or irrelevant “facts.”

It will be ugly working it out if those who have opposed it in the past return to the tactics they’ve used before. Look for misrepresentations of costs, and delays designed to run the process past the deadlines to get the issue on the next presidential election year ballot.

Yes, it has been proposed before, and yes, the intransigents have found ways to derail even a fair debate. One tactic is to add options like home rule or other elements designed to muddy the waters and create confusion.

People who voted in favor of five commissioners by district may have thought they were voting for a county council then, but they were misled. It was a tactic with two objectives: To undermine the board of commissioners in office at the time by taking away a block of voters who had always supported Julia Gouge, and to stave off another try at forming a charter with a county council and executive elected at large.

“Vote for Five” was the misleading slogan, and in so doing, voters found themselves voting for one — with no choice at-large to lead an agenda.


Carroll County will have charter government eventually. It’s not about if, but when, as surely as those roads overseen by the old roads commissioners became paved.