Time of reckoning arrives for county's draft charter Hearings to give citizens chance to express their views

June 28, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

County charter board members have toiled in virtual anonymity for four months, laboring over the meanings of words, phrases and concepts to write the document that could restructure county government and make history.

Now the nine elected drafters want to know if constituents have been watching, if they care enough to become engaged, and if they have opinions to offer.

The first of three public hearings over the next nine days on the charter board's initial draft will take place at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Agriculture Center, 700 Agricultural Lane, Westminster. Hearings also will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Taneytown Library, 10 Grand Drive; and 7:30 p.m. July 7 at the Eldersburg Library, 6400 W. Hemlock Drive.

"We want people to tell us what they like, but more importantly, what they don't like," said board member Greg Pecoraro.

All parts of the 74-page charter draft, which is divided into nine articles, are subject to change, said Pecoraro. But the board could be tough to sway on some major decisions, such as having an appointed administrator rather than an elected county executive, he said.

The board will revise the charter after the hearings, then present a final version to the county commissioners, who must publish it at least twice in a county newspaper. The board wants to put the charter on the November ballot as a referendum.

If approved by voters, the charter would provide Carroll with its first-ever written constitution outlining the structure, powers, duties and limitations of government. It would take effect after the commissioners' term expires in November 1994.

An approved charter would replace the commission form of government, which has operated in Carroll since its incorporation in 1837. Charter governments typically involve a county council and an executive, but can take other forms.

Charter counties have more powers to enact local laws than those governed by commission, whose powers are restricted by the state. Carroll's commissioners must have local laws passed through the General Assembly, which meets three months per year.

Carroll's eight municipalities have charter government, which means they can pass certain laws without county or state approval.

Eight Maryland counties -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's, Talbot and Wicomico -- have charter government.

A grass-roots organization initiated the drive for charter government because it sees the commissioner form as outdated and unresponsive to the needs of a growing county. Opponents view charter as a more expensive and bureaucratic option.

The charter board has not approved its first draft and still is working on "finishing touches," said Pecoraro. But it has prepared a summary. The following is a condensed version:

The County Council: Five members would be elected from different districts to serve four-year terms. They would be paid $7,500 annually, except the president, who would receive $8,000. Redistricting may occur in the year 2002, and every 10th year thereafter.

Legislative Powers: The council would meet on the first three Tuesdays of the month, and every Tuesday in May. It would not exceed 45 legislative session days annually and would not schedule meetings before 6 p.m.

Any council member could introduce a bill, which could be enacted after a public hearing. The council could reject a bill upon its introduction, or veto a bill passed by the council, with four votes.

A county administrator, attorney and auditor would be appointed, and could be removed, by the council, which also would appoint boards and commissions.

Executive Power: The council would be designated as the chief executive authority. The executive branch would consist of the council in executive session, the administrator, attorney and auditor, and heads of county departments and agencies. The council's executive powers and duties of certain officials are enumerated.

Budget and Finance: Responsibility would be on the administrator to prepare and administer a budget, and on the council to establish priorities and program objectives. The article sets guidelines for forming a budget, public review, purchasing procedures, borrowing limitations and bond sales.

Personnel: The council would be required to establish a personnel system. Most employees would be classified; certain others who are appointed, such as the county administrator, would be exempt and could be terminated without specific cause. Salaries and wages would be according to classification, and pay plans would be adopted by the council.

General Provisions: The council would adopt a code of ethics for elected and appointed officers and employees, and members of boards and commissions. The council could meet in executive session to perform duties other than enacting legislation, and could close meetings as permitted by state law.

Transitional Provisions: The charter would go into effect in December 1994. The article addresses how legal and structural changes in government would take place under charter.

Charter Termination/Amendments: This article establishes provisions under which council members or the electorate could propose to terminate the charter and return to commission, or amend the charter. A petition would require signatures of 20 percent of the registered voters or at least 10,000 voters.

A charter review commission would be appointed every 10 years to evaluate charter government.

Administrative Services: The administrator would supervise all offices and departments. The council could set government's organization and could abolish agencies. This article outlines provisions for a planning commission and a board of appeals.

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