Neall wants changes in county's charter


County Executive Robert R. Neall will set in motion this week a process that will change the way the government works -- making recommendations on ways to change the county's 28-year-old charter.

Neall will ask the Charter Review Commission this week to allow voters to decide next fall whether the county should set up an ethics commission. He also will ask for charter amendments that would empower him to significantly cut spending without General Assembly approval and give him more flexibility in organizing county departments.

Neall is expected to forward his requests for charter changes to the five-member commission on Tuesday or Wednesday, County Attorney Judson Garrett said.

The County Council, which has final say on charter amendment questions, also is expected to approve a question on the November ballot that will ask voters whether council members should be limited to three terms in office.

Council Chairman David Boschert said he wants the amendment limiting council members to three four-year terms. The Crownsville Democrat said the amendment would apply to anyone running in 1994; an incumbent's time in office would not count as part of the 12-year limit. The county executive is already limited to two four-year terms.

The review commission, which has been meeting for the past year, is expected to issue its final recommendations to the council July 1.

The charter serves as a kind of constitution for the county government, spelling out how the government should be set up and detailing responsibilities of elected and appointed officials.

By state law, it must be reviewed once every 10 years. To take effect, any amendments approved by the council must be approved by voters on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Neall said his proposed amendments would clean up problems with the way the county works.

He said allowing the executive to reduce spending levels in the budget without General Assembly approval would enable him to significantly cut spending in the face of a budget crisis without having to petition the legislature. He had to go the General Assembly last November when he was hit with $20 million in state aid cuts.

Neall said allowing the executive to reorganize the government would make it easier to streamline. The charter currently specifies which departments may be set up in the county government, and outlines duties for each.

"He sees these things as being the tools that he needs for him to do the job," Garrett said.

He said the county has a state-required ethics law, but is the only county in Maryland that has no ethics commission. Garrett said the proposal being considered would set up a commission of seven members appointed by the executive and subject to confirmation by the council.

Commission members would have to be county residents and could not be candidates for public office, government employees, or hold an office in a county political organization, Garrett said.

They would be non-salaried, but would be reimbursed for travel expenses and would have the option of appointing a commission attorney, he said.

The county attorney, who is appointed by the county executive, now acts as the ethics officer and reviews complaints. Both Neall and Garrett say that poses a potential conflict in cases involving the executive.

Garrett, the former deputy attorney general in Maryland, said has had no conflicts in his six-month tenure, but that such a relationship could mean problems in future years with different officials.

"I'm old enough that I could go out and hang up a shingle [and establish a private practice] if I wanted to, but the integrity of the system should be built into the institution and shouldn't depend on the individuals in office," Garrett said.

Dallas Evans, vice chairman of the Charter Revision Commission, said the group also will recommend the county hire a consultant to go over the charter and clarify some of the language in the 127-page document.

He said the commission also will recommend a charter amendment allowing binding arbitration to handle employee grievances.

Charter amendments must be approved by the council, certified by the county Board of Elections and then advertised each week for five successive weeks before the election, county officials said.

The County Council is due to introduce the charter amendments in resolution form July 6. The council, which has final say on how amendments are worded on the ballot, may hold a public hearing on the amendments and then vote on them at either of its meetings in late July or at its Aug. 3 session. The council must have the amendments sent to the elections board by Aug. 10.

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