For the sixth time since 1968, Cecil County voters will head to the polls to decide whether to adopt or reject a proposal to switch the form of local government here. This time the charter ballot question, if approved, replaces the five-member board of county commissioners with an elected, full-time county executive to manage the government and five council-members to perform the legislative function. A Director of Administration, a position similiar to that of the county administrator, would be appointed to assist the executive.
As it has always done since these referendums first surfaced in the particularly troubled late 1960s, it has become a polarizing subject. Many of the same issues at the center of the earlier pushes, beginning 42-years ago, remain the same as citizens are bombarded with arguments. Charter would be more efficient or it would cost more. Charter would bring government closer to the people or charter would result in one-person rule. Charter would create professional government or charter would result in a larger bureaucracy.
The 1968 plan differed from the current one as it called for another form of governance, code home rule. Under that system the commissioners would have been retained, but the right to pass public local laws would have been transferred from the General Assembly to the commissioners. The Institute for Governmental Services describes it as “the functional equivalent of charter home rule but a newer and more streamlined version.
News reports from the weeks leading up to the previous charter votes in 1972, 1991 and 1996 generally showed that all stops were pulled out to sway voters. The same arguments were used, including the increased cost of local government, warnings about an executive with too much power, and loss of checks and balances. Informed people and organizations throughout the county typically picked sides as proponents formed groups to push the change, while the opposition was usually unorganized.
The first time people pulled levers to decide on code home rule in 1968, voter turnout was 75%. Eighteen percent of the voters favored the change. When code referendum appeared one more time in 1992, 38% approved of it. The last time a ballot qestion was considered (1996) it was back to charter 41% of the people voted yes and the turnout was 63%. In between the voters consistently said no to the referendums.
Charter Had Never Been Tried More Than Twice
The charter question was last considered here in 1996. Until then “no county in Maryland had ever tried to adopt a charter more than twice. After the second time, either a county had approved a charter or the voters had given up and not returned for a third try,” notes an informative title, Home Rule Options in Maryland. “But in 1996, Cecil County was preparing a charter, the third proposed charter in history and proponents were optimistic. The county had voted on charter government only five years before. The proposal had lost by a few hundred voters, the closest margin ever recorded in Maryland for a charter referendum . . . In 1996, charter proponents in Cecil County were counting on three being the charm,” the book notes.
“Whatever interest existed in home rule in that year was short-lived. By the end of the year, the voters in Cecil County had rejected the charter by a margin of 18 percent (59 to 41 percent) and in Caroline County by a 10 percent margin. The code home rule proposal in Dorchester County was defeated by a 60 to 40 percent vote. . . .”
Victor Tervala, the author of this book, says the view in the early 1970s seemed to be that that home rule for all Maryland counties was inevitable. “This was a view that was prevalent in the early 1970s when many counties had recently acquired charter and a new form of home-rule code home rule was just being introduced the state. The drum beat for home rule in those days must have been very loud. But today there is no loud drum beat, although interest in home rule remains as high as ever. Nonetheless, many people today argue that the traditional commissioner form of government remains as robust and practical as at any time in is 350-year year. In this view, home rule for all Maryland counties is far from inevitable,” the author wrote in 2001.
In 2010, a well-financed campaign, with nearly $15,000 to sway voters to support charter, formed early, making its case through billboards, robo-calls, mailers, a website, and newspaper advertising. But no formal equivalent organization emerged to argue the opposite side although in recent days letters have started appearing in the newspaper, and advertising pieces in mailboxes.
Arguments For and Against Today
Looking to the current non-affiliated opposition comments, one from Richard Boyle was published in the Cecil Whig this past week. Worried about the “rhetoric touting charter,” he said “citizens selected by our commissioners developed this charter. This charter is designed so council can write new tax laws, without anyone’s question, costing us more in taxes. . . . The only people having problems with our present commissioner form of government are our commissioners. Vote no for charter.”
Michelle Henson wrote in too. She worried about the cost, the lack of ability to have a referendum, and the efficiency of having an elected executive run things. “Does this really improve the efficiency of my current government or does charter create an expensive position that gives a great deal of power to one person?” she asked.
John Brookes, another opposition correspondent, said “Why do we need to give more power to our county government with charter government? In this time for fiscal restraint charter gives local government more power, which we are fighting against. It also costs the county more money, which will come out of the paychecks savings we have.”
One commissioner Candidate, Diana Broomell, added her concerns about bigger, more expensive government giving too much power to the county executive on her blog Broomell for Commissioner. She emphasized a new discussion point, as the candidate noted the commissioners held forums across the county a few years ago and were overwhelmingly urged to push for code home rule, “This form of government provides the most local authority available, the cost would remain almost the same as our current commissioner form and we wouldn’t be at the mercy of a county executive or state delegation. . . My question,” she continued “is why wouldn’t the county commissioners support code home rule?”
The county commissioners switched the form of government proposal in 2009. Initially the board took a straw poll to determine the governance structure favored by people, and found that citizens preferred code in that survey. After taking the informal vote, the commissioners decided to go with charter. That caused Commissioner Demmler to arguge against the reversal: ”The people voted and code home rule won. Plus charter government will cost more money.” Bill Manlove, The president of the board, countered ”Any type of government would cost more next year than this year.”
In support of the 2010 ballot question, Commissioner Wayne Tome published a letter to the editor. “We have grown into being a larger county and are facing issues that should be subjected to being managed by the state legislature. In another letter, Kennard Wiggins wrote: “For those who seek a smaller government impact on their lives and pocketbooks, I recommend that you study the Cecil County charter government initiative on this November’s ballot. Our current commissioner form of government is governance by committee. It often must play mother May I to Annapolis for permission to administer our local affairs,” There were a number of other supporting letters, making similar points, and to see additional details on reasons to support charter, click here to surf over to a Maryland Board of Elections listed group seeking to convince voters to support the ballot question. (There isn’t an equivalent opposition group or site to point you to.)
The question of cost is central to the debate. Adressing that, Kennard Wiggins said the “Charter Board was well aware that previous Charter efforts floundered on these very rocks and took pains to avoid the shoals of additional expense. They wisely designed a structure that is almost neutral in terms of the costs of the structure by reducing some salaries, and eliminating some positions in order to “pay the bill” for the added features.”
The proposed charter creates the position of executive, with a compensation of not less than $98,000. The five commissioners are replaced with five council members, each receiving compensation of not less than $25,000. A Director of Administration, with an unspecified salary, is also created to assist the executive and a Director of Finance (salary unspecified) replaces the treasurer.
Voters ten, twenty, thirty, and forty years ago would have recognized all those 21st century arguments for those were exactly the same points they debated as the question came to the voters, in those earlier decades.
While the matter hasn’t received much in-depth attention in the daily paper, the Whig did endorse charter. (In previous years it would do multi-part series examining the pros and cons in detail.) However, the Record carried two stories about charter this week. In the paper’s op/ed column a staff journalist at the Havre de Grace weekly reflecting on Harford County’s switch to charter in 1972 and the question before Cecil Countians wrote: People who opposed the charter [in Harford) said it “would expand the reach of county government and with it the cost. Looking back on what happened in Harford, the critics were right. The county budget in the last year of the old board of county commissioners was something like $30-million counting the school system out. The budget passed $100-million within 10 years,” wrote Allan Vought.
Which arguments hold the greatest weight is going to be determined once again on Tuesday, Nov 2., 2010 when the people decide for the sixth time.