Frederick Charter Government On Hold

Paul Gordon had comments in the Frederick Gazette about the (hopefully temporary) demise of the charter govnerment movement in Frederick County. While I can understand why the local League of Women voters pulled out since there does not seem to be much interest amoung the County Commissioners themselves to follow through on the effort, the hibernation of the movement is a concern.

In some fairly significant matters, Frederick County and Western Maryland are not much like the rest of the state. Frederick is more rural (although that is changing rapidly), is more conservative (also changing) and tends to be more self-reliant. It has always seemed anachronistic for Frederick to have to go, hat in hand, every year to the General Assembly to do anything of substance. Some members of the Frederick County General Assembly Delegation, specifically Del. Galen Clagett (D) also feel that way. But what is strange is that we in Frederick have not realized the benefits of a charter government. The first, and most important, is that a charter government is here, right in front of us, not a hundred miles away in Annapolis. Second, a charter government is more robust, capable of responding to immediate needs without having to wait for the General Assembly to gather to address immediate needs. Yes, the Commissioners can do some emergency type legislative activities, but it is limited and shouldn’t be.

Gordon was right when he said that it is the people we elect that is more important than the form of government we have. This is, of course, true, but when the bulk of the legislative activity we ask of the General Assembly can be held hostage by Delegates over which Frederick County Residents have no control, it is pretty difficult to see how that is to our continued advantage. Yes, a great deal of “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” goes on in the General Assembly when it comes to county legislative requests, but that doesn’t mean it is a good thing.

Gordon used Washington County’s charter effort as an example, noting that a vast proportion of the legislation passed by a County Council (on the ballot in February for approval by the county voters to have a strong county council form of charter government) would still have to be approved by the General Assembly.

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Washington County’s analysis showed that in the 2001-2005 period, 130 county bills were proposed by the delegation with 58 becoming law. Of those 58, if there had been home rule, only 12 bills, 9.2 percent of the original 130, would have escaped a vote by the General Assembly. That’s hardly significant.

Well, let’s not be too hasty. What were those 12 bills? What was their subject matter? Were those the top 12 issues of concern to voters? Did they make the top 20? Just because only a few bills would not have needed General Assembly approval does not mean that they were insignificant.

Maryland’s laws regarding the power of Counties to act independently has always sort of amused me. Individual cities within a county, say Frederick City or Brunswick or Thurmont, have a city council and mayors capable of a fair amount of independent action, but the county government is not.

Frederick needs to revive the charter government movement and either adopt a strong executive format or a strong council format. But for goodness sakes, let’s move out of the 19th Century.

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