In 16 days, suburban Maryland voters will elect six people to jobs that rank among the power elite of local officials in the nation.
The county executives in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Montgomery counties wield the same muscle as big-city mayors, deciding who gets water and sewerage, whose potholes to repave and which neighborhoods will receive new schools. Most of them also provide police and fire protection.
"Every function of government, it's totally in his hands," said former Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph Alton. "All the things that affect their [voters'] daily lives, other than national security, are given or taken away at the local level."
Nationwide, that kind of concentrated power is the exception rather than the rule, said Michael G. Griffin, executive director of the National Council of Elected County Executives (NCECE). Only 12 percent of the more than 3,600 counties across the United States elect executives -- sometimes called parish presidents, judges and mayors -- to run their day-to-day operations.
Even then, some executives do not have the range of powers that they do in Maryland, said state Secretary of Transportation O. James Lighthizer, who ruled as Anne Arundel's executive in the 1980s. Anne Arundel County -- which, with 450,600 residents, has roughly the same population as Denver -- is home to a school system that's among the 20 largest in the nation and a police department that ranks among the 40 largest, he said.
"If you go somewhere else and say you were a county executive, they think you were some flunkie administrator," Mr. Lighthizer said. "In Maryland, it's a big boy's job."
Still, Daniel Nataf, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, worries that the public appears woefully ignorant about government at the local level, including the scope of a county executive's duties.
"There is a cognitive gap between average citizens and the political insiders who know this stuff," said Mr. Nataf who, last fall, taught the first course in state and local government at UMBC in 10 years. "If you had one out of 100 people who had ever looked at the Maryland Constitution, I'd be surprised. My students hadn't."
Mr. Nataf, who ran for House of Delegates and lost in the Democratic primary, said voters, just as his students, seem to lack basic knowledge about state and local government. On the campaign trail this summer, he said, he often found voters didn't even know the names of the two houses of the General Assembly.
Mr. Griffin said, "I don't think enough people do know . . . how complicated, how detailed a job a county executive holds. He has to do everything a governor does, only on a smaller scale."
Actually, because Maryland's county governments are so centralized, they are "easier to understand than anywhere else," said Patricia Florestano, a political science professor at the University of Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer Center. "[It] is cleaner and less complicated."
In other states, counties have multiple school, police and fire districts. They have independent library boards and road districts -- often with their own taxing authority.
Tim Davis, president of the NCECE and county executive for Summitt County, Ohio, said his county has 16 independent school boards, 10 police districts and 32 cities, villages and townships. In all, he said, there are more than 350 elected officials and 78 separate taxing authorities in Summitt, which has a population of 525,000.
Summitt County recently formed an executive-led government to eliminate some of the overlapping authority and confusion, Mr. Davis said. Eventually, he said, he would like to have a system similar to those in Maryland.
"Somebody has to be in charge of this mess," Mr. Davis said. "Our problem here is that so many of the elected officials have a piece of the pie."
In Maryland, the executive virtually controls the pie. His greatest power -- indeed, the source of his power -- lies in the budget. He sets a county's priorities because, with the exception of education spending, a county council may cut but not add to the budget. In Baltimore County, the council cannot even increase education spending.
"It's the old golden rule: He who has the gold rules," Mr. Lighthizer said. "That's what the budget is, the gold."
The strong county executive system closely parallels the state and federal governments, which most people understand, said Jeanne Bilanin, project administrator for the Institute for Governmental Service at University of Maryland College Park. The executive has an agenda, separate from the legislative branch and, frequently, a veto over legislation adopted by an elected county council, she said.
Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall said a county executive is more directly responsible for the quality of residents' lives than any other public official. He can have an impact on the economy, literacy, health and social services and law enforcement.