Aberdeen's Charter Is Broke Let's Fix It

COMMENT

November 14, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Aberdeen deserves better. It's a political cliche whose time has come. Let the citizens structure their government to meet the community's long-term needs, not to suit the fleeting fashions of politicos of the moment.

After more than a year of petty sniping and muddling through embarrassment after embarrassment, Aberdeen's government is in serious need of reconstruction.

A new Charter Review Committee has come up with a proposal to substantially overhaul the 1992 charter that set up a mayor-council system. The new draft would essentially re-establish much of the town commissioner format, only changing the names of the offices. Its clarity and organization stand in marked contrast to the document it would rewrite. Citizens should turn out for public hearings on the draft this month and express their opinions.

It is a rare mayor-council system that Aberdeen erected in 1992, weakened by overlooked faults and rambling, jerry-built wings that doomed it to early demolition or massive renovation.

One major problem was that framers of the system, which was heralded to begin Aberdeen's second century, tried to design it to fit particular individuals instead of tailoring a flexible, one-size-fits-all form of government. It was constructed as a new framework around an existing structure, which didn't quite fit together. The patching and filling produced more problems than they solved.

Not that the charter builders failed to take their task seriously. They just ignored the proven patterns and blueprints to custom-build this unique form of governance.

It can also be said with some justification that these charter builders expected that George Englesson would continue as mayor, an honorary post he held for five years under the commission system, with the complete confidence and compliance of the council majority.

Under that scenario, there was no reason to suspect that there would be a conflict over hiring and firing department heads, no reason to fear that a mayor might be out of sync with the council.

But Mr. Englesson was defeated by Ruth Elliott, the perpetual gadfly and odd woman out for 10 years as a commissioner, while the "new council" members were pretty much the same as the old town commissioners. The mayor and council have been at loggerheads over their authority ever since.

We've seen the assault charges, the wiretap and blackmail charges, the secret investigations and employee suspensions, the gag orders and the personal vendettas.

Despite it all, the mayor and council kept the town running and the budget intact. That showed they could work together if they had to (or wanted to) for an agreed purpose. But the structure for resolving disputes was virtually nonexistent: this was the true Pollyanna framework of municipal government.

Even the budget framework was suspect from the beginning: Candidates agreed that presentation of the new budget was required too soon after the city election.

The biggest failure, though, has been controlling city personnel. The distrust and deadlock between the mayor and council resulted in the farce now playing at the city police department.

Mayor Elliott conducts an improper hush-hush inquiry into the chief, the council stops her. She tries to fire the chief, the council blocks it. The state prosecutor finds misconduct by the chief, and the civic leaders can only agree through stalemate to keep him in office. (To paper over their political pusillanimity, they remove him from direct supervision of the 40 employees so he can concentrate on "chiefly things" at $48,000 a year.)

While the police department is in an uproar, the quality of everyday law enforcement hasn't noticeably deteriorated. But it's clear that this situation will not blow over; there's a sexual harassment suit against the chief and another state investigation of other allegations against him.

The whole political picture has become such a mess that ordinary folk throw up their hands and don't even want to talk about it. They reflect the political apathy that has dominated Aberdeen affairs even before the charter change, creating a kind of insiders' club of government for those who chose to become involved.

The mayor-council form of government was supposed to revive broader interest in the political affairs of the city. Instead, the resultant bickering and deadlock at City Hall has inspired a collective community skepticism and disgust.

The latest charter review committee now proposes a city document that, in effect, would create a five-member council. The elected mayor would have ceremonial duties but no executive powers, and serve as the fifth member of the council.

The council would rule by majority on personnel matters; supervision of departments would be a joint responsibility. The committee's charter is more like a council-manager system. Authority and responsibilities are clearly defined, eliminating the ambiguity and conflict that is the weakness of the current document.

Changing the charter won't necessarily bring Aberdeen wiser government. That will be up to the same elected officials who have deepened their political rivalries instead of mending them. But the new draft charter at least makes it clear who is responsible for decisions and eliminates the current deadlock.

That is better for the citizens of Aberdeen, even if it appears to take them back to the future.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harfor County.

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