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Charter Government Popular Among Md. Counties

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CHRISTIAN ALEXANDERSON
Carroll County Times

WESTMINSTER, Md. (AP) — Though all 23 Maryland counties started by being run by county commissioners, more and more counties have switched to a charter form of government in search for greater control over local issues.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil, Dorchester, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Talbot and Wicomico counties now operate under charter. The newest convert, Frederick County, will transition from county commissioners to charter in December, after voters approved the switch in 2012.

Charter counties are governed by an elected council with power to legislate on nearly all local matters and, typically, a county executive. This allows charter counties to pass local legislation without having to go before the Maryland General Assembly.

Over the years, Carroll County residents have attempted to switch from a board of commissioners to a charter form of government. Carroll residents voted six times against switching to other forms of governments and/or creating a charter board since 1968. The last time charter government was voted on was in 1998.

The proposal, which was two years in the making, involved then Sykesville Mayor Jonathan Herman and Hampstead Mayor Chris Nevin, who formed Carroll County Citizens for Charter Government. They began collecting signatures for a petition to get a charter board appointed by the county commissioners. The Carroll County Charter Board was created and the proposal was put to a vote during a special election.

It was defeated by about a 3-to-2 margin.

“The biggest objection was the perceived increase in cost to the structure of government,” Nevin said. “Back then, we were electing three commissioners at large and the charter that was proposed would have required a county executive and five council people elected by district. It would only be one more position than what we have today.”

In 2010, Carroll County moved from a three-member board of commissioners elected at large to a five-member board elected by district.

Nevin said he favors the charter form of government because it provides a county with additional legislative authority that would not require it to go to Annapolis. Charter, he said, is a very effective form of government.

Nevin said he couldn’t speculate what the chances of success would be if someone were to propose charter government in Carroll again. Nevin, who said he still supports switching to charter, said he does not know of any initiatives to change the form of government in Carroll.

Most recently, the Carroll County Democratic Central Committee met in 2012 to discuss the possibility of getting charter government passed for Carroll. Jackie Jones, chairwoman of the Democratic central committee, said the idea did not get enough support from Republicans to move forward.

If charter government was to pass in Carroll, Jones said it would need the broad support of Republicans. In the 2012 general election, Republicans made up about 65 percent of Carroll voters.

James Massey has a unique perspective, as he has worked for two Maryland counties that were transitioning from county commissioner to charter forms of government. Massey was working as a council administrator for Harford County in the 1970s when it adopted a charter form of government. After moving to California, Massey said he came back to Maryland when he found out that Cecil County would be transitioning to charter in 2012.

Massey, who now manages the daily operation of the Cecil County Council, said there are a lot of benefits to having a charter form of government. One benefit, he said, is that Cecil County does not have to rely on its delegations to the General Assembly to get local issues addressed.

“In the past, some things were stonewalled by our state delegates,” Massey said. “If they didn’t want certain things, they would not allow it to (move forward). With local deference, the General Assembly would not approve something that the local delegation was not in favor of.”

In recent years, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners have had difficulty getting legislation passed at the General Assembly. The most notable example is the local gaming bill, which would amend the state’s criminal law article in Carroll to allow certain qualified organizations to sponsor card games and casino nights for charitable purposes.

The gaming bill, which has been proposed by the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, has failed to pass both chambers of the General Assembly in seven legislative sessions.

Massey said Cecil County has become more efficient because it does not have to go through delegations.

Carroll Commissioner Haven Shoemaker, a Republican, said he sees how having a charter government would make the legislative process much simpler for counties.

“The commissioner form of government has its pros and cons. The con being that we have to go hat-in-hand to Annapolis for just about everything,” said Shoemaker, who is running for a District 5 seat in the Maryland House of Delegates. “Our authority to act within the confines of Carroll County is somewhat limited by virtue of the type of government we have.”

There may come a time, Shoemaker said, that Carroll County voters decide a charter form of government works best for them. Shoemaker said he doesn’t know if or when that time could come.

Massey said the charter form of government has also opened up the legislative process to the public. Residents can weigh in on legislative issues at a council meeting instead of having to go to Annapolis and testify, he said. Anytime you add more steps to the process, the citizen becomes less likely to get involved.

The openness and accessibility of the charter form of government has resulted in more people attending the council meetings, he said.

“They see the opportunity that they can come in and voice their opinion and see how the laws are legislated,” Massey said.

One of the reasons counties may be hesitant to switch to a charter form of government is the idea that it will cost more than having county commissioners, according to Michael Sanderson, executive director for the Maryland Association of Counties.

The adoption of charter government may, in some cases, add to the total number of county employees and representatives.

While cost issues always come up, Sanderson said no county that has ever gone to charter government has ever switched back. No one seems to have “buyer’s remorse,” he said.

When Cecil County voters considered becoming a charter, Massey said, their biggest concern was making sure charter government wouldn’t cost more than county commissioners. As a result, Massey said, the county council and executive have worked hard to keep charter government economical.

“We’re always looking at doing things more efficiently and working to avoid duplication of services,” Massey said. “That’s a good concept. As you get bigger, sometimes, government can’t look inward and look for efficiencies. But this government is lean.”

Shoemaker said cost is always the standard concern for people skeptical about transitioning from a county commissioner to a charter government. Ultimately, though, the cost of operating a charter government is dependent on how the charter is written and how the government is structured.

“It can be done without being a budget buster for the taxpayers, if it’s done right,” Shoemaker said.

In 1915, the Maryland General Assembly voted to allow counties the option of operating under a charter form of government. Prior to the legislature’s decision, all Maryland counties operated under a board of commissioners form of government.

There are two ways to adopt a county charter.

The first is by having 20 percent of voters sign a petition to request an election of a charter board. The board of commissioners then chooses five people for the charter board. The charter board and the petition are then voted on. If both are approved, the charter board prepares a charter and another election is held.

The second way is to have it initiated by the board of county commissioners. The commissioners create a charter board and the board then prepares a charter. Residents vote on the charter during a special or general election within 30 to 90 days after it was published.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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