Confusion and charter government often seem to go together because people do not really understand what a charter is.
A few simple comparisons might help.
A charter is like the Constitution of the United States. It defines the mission of the government, describes the roles and powers of elected officials, sets down basic guidelines for how these officials will be elected and describes general laws that apply.
In Maryland, our state was founded using a charter that later evolved into the state constitution. All eight towns in our county have charters that describe how they will function. These work quite well.
As with the U.S. Constitution, these documents may be amended as desired and contain a procedure to make an amendment. While this is not an easy process, most likely to avoid frivolous and frequent changes, it is possible to make important changes.
There are other ways of looking at charters. They are like the bylaws of service organizations to which you may belong. These bylaws serve as guidelines to help an organization run more smoothly and efficiently by saving time in deciding issues that come up frequently.
Just as your organization can change its bylaws if most members agree, so a charter can be changed by voters.
A charter is also like the rules of an organized sport. They spell out criteria by which the game is played, who the players are and what they may and may not do as they play the game.
These rules are not cast in stone, but tend to change for the good of the game, the players and those who watch them. The result is that we are all participants in one way or another.
This leads us to a final comparison, which the League of Women Voters has often quoted: "Democracy is not a spectator sport; participation is the name of the game."
A well-written charter allows for maximum voter involvement to help maintain as much local control and efficiency as possible over local government.
Rosemary Hanger is president of the League of Women Voters of Carroll County.