- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Charles County Charter Board is on track to meet its summer deadline of having a charter ready for voters in the 2014 election, chairman and former state’s attorney Leonard C. Collins Jr. told the county commissioners Tuesday.
The nine-member board is “on target” to have the rough draft of a rewritten county constitution ready to present to residents at public meetings by a self-imposed April 1 deadline and to have a final product ready for the ballot in July, as required by state law, Collins said.
“I asked everyone on the board if I could say that we all had a general feeling that we’re in a good place at this point, and it was the consensus of the board that we feel like we’re in a good place,” Collins said.
Charles County currently has a code home rule form of government, which retains the commissioner structure while allowing limited power to enact local legislation. Voters determine the form of government in charter counties, but generally they feature county councils with broad legislative authority on local matters and a separate county executive responsible for government operations. Counties with commissioners but without code home rule can only act on local matters as authorized by the Maryland General Assembly.
The commissioners voted unanimously in March to establish the charter board, which has since met at least twice monthly and hosted current and former county and state officials, including former Prince George’s County Council members and current council members from Cecil County, which in 2012 transitioned from code home rule to a charter form of government when residents elected a county executive and five-member county council, Collins said.
The board also has received guidance from Victor Tervala, an attorney and former faculty member of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Governmental Service, who has advised seven previous Maryland charter boards, Collins said.
The board has discussed, among other issues, how many council members there will be and whether they should be elected at large or by district, as well as whether to have a county executive, term limits, checks and balances, and limits on taxing, spending and borrowing, Collins said.
The board updates a rough draft of its charter after each meeting. As currently written, the draft includes a county executive and five- or seven-member county council.
“I didn’t know that the rough draft was updated,” Commissioner Debra M. Davis (D) said. “That’s a brilliant idea, to have it updated as you go along so people can see the process as it takes place.”
“Luckily, the county support staff updates it,” Collins said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from the county support staff. Video, secretarial, legal, it’s all been good.”
Collins said Tervala advised that the board “not lock ourselves in on any given issue, so our rough draft is a suggestion of where we may be going.”
Once finished, the rough draft will be presented during a series of public forums. The board also recently agreed to put a survey up on the county website that allows citizens to weigh in on specific issues, vice chairwoman and 2014 county commissioner candidate Kamilah Way said.
“We reached a consensus that it would be better for us to have something out there for the public to look at, so that they, rather than, as one of the members said, it’s easier for the public to respond if we say, ‘What do you think of that car?’ as opposed to, ‘What do you think of a new car?’” Collins said. “So they’ll be able to see what we’ve come up with, and they can focus in on anything that they feel is particularly worthy or unworthy of a new government.”
“It’s really great to hear that you’re working on the draft and that you’ll have something very specific to take out and work with folks on,” commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) said.
“Obviously it’s my hope and assumption that once you go through the public hearing process that you will be flexible enough to really take into account what the public says,” Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said. “If there’s any one particular issue that you suddenly realize people are either seriously for or seriously against, that you’ll look at amending the draft before it reaches the ballot in November.”
Robinson suggested the county put a banner on its website’s home page directing citizens to the section about the charter board.
Future meetings to be televised live
The commissioners also voted unanimously to televise live future meetings of the charter board, which thus far have only been recorded and posted on the county’s website.
The county already broadcasts several regular meetings live, including those of the commissioners, planning commission, liquor board and board of appeals. Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall told the commissioners there was little obstacle in adding the charter board to the broadcast schedule.
Doing so could cost the county between $200 and $400 per meeting, depending on which staff members are on hand to operate the recording equipment, “but we regularly do that,” Hall said. “We do a lot of evening tapings.”
“I think as we’re getting closer to the time of this committee reaching its ultimate goal of writing a charter, which will be voted on by the citizens of the county, I think it’s in the best interest of transparency of information to have those meetings broadcast live,” Robinson said.
Davis thought County Attorney Barbara Holtz had informed the commissioners that the charter board had elected to not broadcast its meetings live, but Holtz said no such decision had been made.
“Many of us assumed that it was live, but we made no conscious decision, and we don’t have any preference,” Collins said.
Hall said meetings are broadcast unedited, except on the “incredibly rare” occasion that any foul language needs to be bleeped out.
“I would guess that most members of the charter board speak with language that would not need to be bleeped,” Robinson said.
“For the most part,” Holtz said jokingly.
To learn more
To view the rough draft of the charter, go to the Charles County Charter Board’s Web page at www.charlescountymd.gov/commissioners/boards/charter-board, and scroll down to “Staff Reports.” The latest draft, updated following the board’s Dec. 19 meeting, can be viewed at www.charlescountymd.gov/commissioners/boards/minutes_agendas/draft-charter-december-19-2013.
To take the charter board’s survey, go to www.surveymonkey.com/s/L8RQ7C7.