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Tomlinson: Pay attention, but don't fear idea of charter government

On Jan. 10, the Board of County Commissioners had a lengthy conversation about charter government and a motion was made — not a motion to transition our county to charter government, but a motion to learn more about charter by having county leaders from across the state come to Westminster to educate the board

The commissioners are not the only ones considering menu options that include charter government. Recently, readers of the Carroll County Times have been served several helpings of articles and columns discussing the issue. Folks navigating the waters of social media have to navigate the facts and fake news about charter that been posted like a boat skipper steering his boat through sunken debris in the Chesapeake Bay. However, for the majority of us who call Carroll County home, pay our taxes, and make an honest living, the idea of charter government is a foreign concept that means very little.

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The counties of Maryland operate under one of three forms of government; Commissioner, “Code” Home Rule, or “Charter” Home Rule. There are currently six counties operating under the commissioner-style of government, including Carroll County. The largest share of Maryland’s counties (11 in all) have adopted a charter form of government. How do these two forms differ from each other?

Under a commissioner-style of government, the Board of County Commissioners serves as both the executive and legislative branch of county government. The commissioners not only legislate, but also execute the laws. The commissioners also split the responsibility of managing the county government. Most importantly, the board does not have the ability to pass or change local laws. Instead, the board relies on their county delegation to take legislation down to the General Assembly in Annapolis and seek the support of state senators and delegates from around the state to vote in favor of it. Depending on the county, commissioners may be elected by district or at-large or a combination of both. In addition, the Board of County Commissioners must seek the approval of the General Assembly to give raises to county-level elected officials such as the county sheriff and for the authorization to issue bonds.

Charter government allows each county to write its own constitution, in other words — a charter. Each charter is written differently by each county, but the one common denominator is that all charters give their counties the right to enact their own local laws without the approval of the General Assembly. Out of the 11 charter counties, nine have a clear separation of powers, namely, a county council that creates and passes legislation, and a county executive who executes the law and runs the government. This is how Carroll’s eight municipalities are presently run — a town or city council writes and passes ordinances, and an executive, a mayor, executes and enforces those ordinances. Two charter counties (Talbot and Dorchester) have county councils and no county executive and operate in the same fashion as our BOCC. Depending on how the charter is written, some counties elect their council members by district or at-large or a hybrid thereof. Furthermore, charter counties have bonding authority and determine compensation for their county-level elected officials, such as the county’s state’s attorney.

Are there any benefits to transitioning from our current government structure to charter government that establishes a county executive?

First, county government employees would report to one individual — the county executive, instead of five different county commissioners. Presently, county staff has five different bosses, who may or may not have different agendas or priorities. A county executive would be responsible for supervising and directing all of the county departments, agencies and offices.

One downside of having five commissioners elected by district is that each voter only gets to vote for one-fifth of the executive body running our county government. Under charter, voters countywide would be able to cast a vote for the county executive and vote for one or more county council members, allowing voters to be better represented at the county level.

Another benefit that is associated with a charter form of government that creates the position of county executive — one strong voice to speak for Carroll in Annapolis. Having one person represent us in discussions with the Governor and the General Assembly would give us a better seat at the table, than just a seat at the kiddie table. Just last week at the governor’s inauguration, county executives from around the state were seated on the main stage behind Gov. Larry Hogan. Unfortunately, there were no seats available for any of Maryland’s county commissioners.

Last, switching to charter would allow our local leaders to make local decisions and pass local laws. No longer would we be dependent on state senators from Montgomery County or delegates from Baltimore City to vote on matters that affect only Carroll County. Presently, our commissioners depend on our local delegation to put forth legislation in the 90 days they meet in Annapolis each year, and hope that a majority of the General Assembly votes “yea.”

The county can adopt charter two ways: first, via the more difficult path, by having 20 percent of voters sign a petition forcing our Board of County Commissioners to assemble a charter board to write a charter; or, via the path of least resistance, the commissioners vote to create a charter board. Either way, after the charter board completes the final draft of the charter, voters would be able to vote “for” or “against” the adoption of charter.

Our commissioners are currently exploring the idea of charter government and deciding on whether to vote for the creation of a charter board. Like the commissioners, I think all county residents should learn more about charter. We should not hide from the premise of charter but we should however pay close attention to the charter as written. If a well-drafted charter is proposed that provides a clear separation of powers with built-in checks and balances, then I will support it. If not, I will advocate against it. The idea of charter should not be feared, but it should certainly receive the attention of anyone who calls Carroll County home.

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