The Frederick County Charter Board will be finishing up its work in the next few weeks. The decision of whether to convert the county government structure from a five-member Board of County Commissioners to an Executive and County Council will be decided by the voters on Nov. 6. The specter of voter rejections of four previous efforts to change from the Commissioner form of government since 1968 has been a recurring theme for the 12 member board (including three alternates) appointed by the Board of County Commissioners in early 2011.
The Board has been diligent and open in its efforts to develop a proposed Charter over the last 15 months. While there has been broad agreement in many areas such as whether to split the executive and legislative functions, some members are clearly uncomfortable with at least one decision.
The most contentious issue has been whether to have a five-member County Council elected countywide like the current County Commissioner process or to elect members from individual districts. A majority of the Charter Board has voted to adopt a hybrid of seven Council members — two elected countywide and five from individual districts. Some are concerned that the change to election districts will arouse opposition that could be avoided with an all at-large system like the current system for commissioners. Although this decision could be reconsidered before the Charter is finalized, it has thus far prevailed in several tests.
There is likely to be some opposition to the adoption of Charter from those fearful that the new form will end up being more costly. Although the draft claims to be cost-neutral, offsetting the executive’s $95,000 per year salary by establishing the pay of part-time Council members at $22,500 per year, about half of the current compensation for commissioners, the larger question is whether the bifurcation of the legislative and executive functions will lead to additional costs for staff, support and bureaucracy.
Others will oppose the Charter because of fears that it will create a structure that favors development interests over those who want the county to adopt more restrictive policies regarding land use. A strong executive is likely to become the focus for well-heeled donors and special interests, and a part-time Council may be at a disadvantage in asserting its prerogatives or influencing public opinion.
While both of these concerns may have merit, I don’t find them sufficient to oppose Charter. At the end of the day, Charter may well cost more than the current Commissioner form but, if so, it will be a result of the growth of the County requiring more oversight and support. Nor is it clear to me that a strong Executive will necessarily tilt in favor of development interests or a part-time Council be a weak opposition. I don’t think elections under Charter will be any less subject to the pendulum swings of the electorate regarding land-use issues than have recent BOCC elections.
But the draft Charter is seriously deficient in the way it deals with redistricting. Although I think the seven member hybrid form is a solid approach to a County Council and have no objection to the five proposed legislative districts, I believe the proposed redistricting process should be unacceptable to anyone who believes the major political parties are more interested in gaining and protecting seats than ensuring fair elections. The process in the current draft gives control of redistricting to the two major parties and the Council members who will be directly affected by their choices, which is a recipe for log-rolling and gerrymandering.
The Charter Board can still fix this glaring problem. I hope they do and would encourage them to do so.
Editor’s Note: Fred Ugast lives in Urbana and has been active in the community since 2001. Ugast can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.