Vigliotti: Concerns against charter government

Carroll County is having a discussion about changing to charter government, and much of what has been said has been in support of it. I would like to add a few words in dissent, and a few related considerations.

I have seen some great passion in online discussions regarding the issue of charter government — essentially, a county council with an executive. Some has been constructive, and some has not. In this, we must take great care to be respectful of one another. We cannot demonize, insult or dismiss anyone on any side of this issue. The other side is not the “enemy,” no matter which side we come down on. We are family, friends and neighbors. We all want what is best for Carroll — but what that might be is where we diverge.


The proponents of charter government do make a compelling case. Strong arguments are made from a constitutional perspective, regarding separation of power and checks and balances. Arguments are also made from a point of saving money, efficiency in government and more.

To what has been said and written in support of charter government, I offer the following counterpoints and thoughts.

The Maryland Constitution, through Home Rule, allows towns and counties to organize and operate their governments within constitutional bounds. Carroll’s form of government surely must at least be within those bounds, else it should have been overturned by voters or by the courts. It may not have the same federal appearance, but it is not necessarily unconstitutional.

True, the commissioner form may be old — but why must simple age be a problem? It’s the merit of the issue which must matter.

Just because others are doing it, why should we? This is not a popularity contest of trends, but a question of what is and is not effective for Carroll.

While our commissioners may be representatives from different districts drawing on particular experience and concern, their decisions are reached with all of Carroll in mind — much the way we expect our state and national legislatures to act. Some proposals for charter retain district representation, so clearly this in and of itself is not the issue.

We moved away from at-large offices, in part, because there was concern about accurate representation for all of Carroll’s voices. What chance do farmers or small towns have against well-populated areas to be heard — or the reverse? If there is going to be an executive, should the executive be elected not at-large, but according to an electoral college-like system, perhaps by district?

Opposition itself comes not from fear, but as conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has noted, from love of what we have. Our system may be imperfect, and it may not be identical to the structures of other counties, but it works well for us.

That is not to say we could not make suggestions for improvements or adjustments in the commissioner system, but there is a difference between altering and abolishing, between adjusting and refashioning.

It stands to reason, as well, that charter opposition is rooted not in fear or the unknown, but from very real examples which surround us, and from previous experience with countywide offices.

At present, we consider the commissioner system a coequal five-member deliberative process which sometimes requires stands, and sometimes requires compromise. What would the limits of the executive’s power be? What would the executive do that five members cannot do now in either making stands or fashioning compromise?

Proponents say this would save money — yet we know from examples elsewhere that charter government does not save money. Frederick County’s budget, for example, has only increased. There may be more to that increase than mere government structure, but the idea that a structural change alone will save money is incomplete.

On the whole, where is the great emergency which only charter government can solve?

Six times Carroll countians have rejected propositions for charter government. Why do proponents want to strike out on a different path, now?


Beyond that, our commissioners have every right to explore the idea. They are good and reasonable men. And after their own exploration, if the commissioners indicate they are interested, as a whole, in moving to charter government, let it be the people who make the final choice through a seventh, and ultimate, referendum.

I would respectfully and humbly suggest letting the people decide how they want their governmental structure to take form because of the expansive nature of the change.

We’re not talking about electing representatives to make choices about funding emergency services or repairing roads or considering a land use plan. We are talking about a transformation of our county, including the way in which those decisions will be made. The people should have a direct voice here if the mode and method are to change.

In my opposition to charter government, I freely admit that I may well be wrong. I do not have all the answers, and I cannot respond to all arguments of my friends on the other side (and I really do mean friends). But, at the very least, I hope to increase the dimensions of the debate, as the success of Carroll rests in the choices we all make.