Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
E-mail this article
Print this Article

A nine-member board tasked with studying whether Charles County should transition to a charter form of home rule government began its work earlier this month by hearing arguments from three county commissioners in favor of the switch.

The meeting kicked off with Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) stating his belief that the county has grown to the point where its government needs to evolve in step with the state’s other large jurisdictions, many of which have county executives and councils as opposed to commissioners.

“There is a big difference” between the two forms of government, Robinson said, adding that he believes the council-executive structure would be “more representative” of the county.

Commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) called the commissioner form of government “antiquated” and said a “separation” of the county’s executive and legislative functions would lead to increased efficiency by giving its staff one boss to report to instead of five.

“I have one boss with five heads,” County Administrator Mark Belton said, adding that often the commissioners will ask for different solutions to the same issue, forcing him to wait until their next weekly meeting to receive final direction.

Kelly said that outside of their weekly meeting, it is hard for the commissioners to regularly gather and make decisions when four of them are technically part-time with full-time careers on the side.

“In the state, there’s only 188 of them. It’s the same thing,” said board member Van Mitchell, a former state delegate, referring to the 188-member state legislature.

“I’m not under some Pollyanna impression that it’s going to be perfect,” Kelly said.

Commissioner Reuben B. Collins II (D) told the board he supported a council-executive structure because it would install a system of checks and balances, reflecting “our general form of government” at the local level. Under the county’s current government, the commissioners serve both executive and legislative functions.

A county executive should have veto power as a check against his council, Collins said, pointing to the president’s ability to veto laws passed by Congress before conceding, only half-jokingly, that the federal government “might not be the best example right now.”

“But ideally, that’s our democracy,” he said.

Collins added that a switch to council-executive government would help increase the county’s standing across the state.

“I love this county, and I think this county has a chance to be a major leader in the state,” he said.

But given the county’s fiscal situation, any switch in governmental structure would have to occur within the scope of the its current budget, Kelly said.

Belton chimed in that a council-executive government would give the county more authority to raise local taxes to help pay for schools, emergency services and even entertainment. Playing “devil’s advocate,” Mitchell pointed out that some would argue that counties with council-executive government have too much taxing power.

When asked whether there is a particular county in Maryland that would serve as a good model for charter government in Charles, Robinson said, “I think Howard County works the best.”

He cited Howard County Executive Ken Ulman’s use of his veto power to resolve the county’s tier map debate within a few weeks, whereas the issue has lingered in Charles for months.

A new state law last year requires counties to draw and submit to the state maps drawn into four tiers identifying where new construction can be built on septic systems or public sewer. Since October, county officials, farmers, developers and environmentalists have quarreled over whether Charles County should approve a map drawn by county staff that preserves more land or one supported by a pro-growth group that would allow more rural development.

Board alternate Dontae Carroll suggested Harford County, where he used to live, as another charter government to emulate, citing the county’s agrarian history and separation from major transit options.

Another optional form of government would be to have the county’s executive duties carried out by a manager appointed by the council, but Collins seemed confident that residents would rather elect an executive. He cited public opposition in Michigan to the state’s takeover of Detroit, where fiscal malaise has prompted the governor to recommend appointment of an emergency fiscal manager for the city.

Collins floated several other ideas, such as creating election districts for the board of education, transitioning away from the sheriff’s office as the county’s primary law enforcement agency and incorporating Waldorf, which he guessed would be “the third or fourth largest city in the state.”

Of the 518 cities or towns in Maryland where population was counted as part of the 2010 census, Waldorf ranks as the fifth-largest, behind Baltimore, Columbia, Germantown and Silver Spring.

Robinson and Kelly also voiced support for electing council members by the district they represent. Currently, all five county commissioners are elected at-large, even though four of them represent specific districts.

Due to being elected at large, Robinson and Kelly said, the commissioners are forced to spend less time in their districts and more time courting voters in Waldorf, where nearly half of the county’s population lives, according to census data.

“I don’t think Waldorf should be California, and that’s what it’s become,” Robinson said in reference to the clout California’s 55 electoral votes hold in presidential elections.

“Right now, the way we’ve developed, it doesn’t matter. The north part of the county is going to carry the election,” Kelly said.

Electing local representatives by district also would free them up to pursue area-specific projects rather than having to publicly tailor programs to the whole county, she added.

Board member and former Charles County state’s attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. countered that electing the commissioners by district might incentivize gerrymandering in the future.

Commissioners Debra M. Davis (D) and Bobby Rucci (D) will speak to the board at a later date.