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Tomlinson: Take the time to learn Carroll County's options for government forms

On Tuesday, June 11, the Carroll County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) held an educational forum on the three different types of county governments in Maryland —commissioner, code home rule and charter. With all of the recent chatter about Carroll County adopting a charter form of government, the BOCC decided to bring in three county government experts to share their knowledge.

Guest speaker Leslie Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, explained that all 24 jurisdictions in Maryland (23 counties and Baltimore city) originally had a commissioner form of government. Under a commissioner structure, the BOCC serves as both the executive and legislative branch of the county government. The commissioners not only legislate, but also execute the laws. The downside is that the board does not have the ability to pass or change local laws. Instead, the commissioners rely on their county delegation to pass legislation through the General Assembly during the annual 90-day legislative session held in Annapolis. This is Carroll County’s present form of government, along with five other jurisdictions.

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By 1914, it became clear that the General Assembly was spending the majority of its time dealing with local issues instead of passing statewide bills. In an attempt to resolve this issue, a measure was passed that year that allowed each jurisdiction to adopt its own charter. The first jurisdiction would adopt charter in 1918 and the second in 1948. As of today, a total of 12 jurisdictions have transitioned to charter government. This form of government allows each county to write its own constitution, or in other words — a charter.

While each charter is unique, the one common denominator among them is that all give jurisdictions the right to enact their own local laws without the approval of the General Assembly. The charter can only be amended if voters approve a ballot question. Out of the 12 jurisdictions with charter, nine have a clear separation of powers, namely, a county council that creates and passes legislation, and a county executive (or a mayor for Baltimore) who executes the law and runs the government.

Charter government gained popularity later in the 20th century, but by 1965, only five jurisdictions across the state had left the commissioner form of government. That same year, the General Assembly created an alternate form of county government: code home rule. The hope was that more counties would discard the commissioner structure and thereby decrease the amount of time legislators spent in Annapolis working on local legislation.

One of the guest speakers on Tuesday night, Victor Tervala, chief solicitor for the City of Baltimore, said that the easiest way to understand code home rule is that it is “basically charter government without a charter.” Code home rule is similar to charter in that the county is allowed to pass and change its own local laws without the need of the General Assembly or a voter referendum. However, instead of adopting a charter when transitioning over to code home rule, a county can keep its already-established laws and ordinances. Similar to the commissioner form of government, code home rule counties have a BOCC that serves as both the executive and legislative branch of the county government. Currently, six counties operate under this form.

After the speakers gave their presentations, attendees were allowed to submit questions. One of the questions stated that under charter governments, the county executive often becomes “all powerful” leaving the county council in an advisory position, before finally asking, “How can this be an improvement over the checks and balances provided under the commissioner (form of) government”? Guest speaker Robert McCord, the governor’s secretary of planning, quickly answered, “It would depend on how you structure your charter.”

No charter is written the same, and depending on how the charter is written, the county executive can be given tremendous power or very limited power. For example, in Frederick County, the county executive’s power is limited when it comes to firing the county attorney. Five out of six of the county council members must agree with the county executive in order for the county attorney to receive a pink slip.

Furthermore, to argue that the commissioner form of government, where a single body operates as both the legislature and executive, provides for greater checks and balances over charter is hardly a cold, hard fact. Based on the structure of the U.S. Constitution that established three separate, independent branches, our “framers” clearly believed that government should have a separation of powers.

Another question asked whether it was easier under charter government to increase taxes. Once again, it all depends on how the charter is written. Carroll County currently requires that it takes a super majority of the commissioners to increase taxes. This is something that could easily be incorporated in a charter.

It was an interesting revelation when Knapp mentioned that Frederick County, despite having a charter form of government, has very similar tax rates when compared to Carroll. Frederick County, the most recent county to make the jump into charter (2014), is often referenced in vain by opponents of charter government. However, Frederick actually has a lower county income tax rate than Carroll (2.96% compared to 3.03%). On the other hand, Carroll has a slightly lower property tax rate than Frederick ($1.018 per $100 of assessed value, compared to $1.060).

For those interested in learning more about the charter form of government specifically, Commissioner Eric Bouchat will moderate a special charter panel this Thursday consisting of Del. Susan Krebs, Commissioner Dennis Frazier and Tom Coe of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services. This informative Q&A will take place at 7 p.m. in the Reagan Room at the County Office Building.

Whether Carroll County decides to keep its present form of government or entertain code home rule or charter, there are plenty of ways to learn more about each type and for each citizen to decide for themselves which form they prefer.

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