Changes to city charter analyzed in Annapolis It was altered last month, but impact still in dispute

February 09, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In the name of government reform, Annapolis city council members approved a number of amendments to the city charter last month that have the effect of putting much of their power into the hands of unelected officials.

Since then, they have praised their handiwork -- talking about landmark reforms -- but that doesn't mean they can explain exactly what they've done.

Did they give up too much power or too little? Did they strengthen the mayor's job? Or is everything the same as before?

Little consensus is apparent, except in a belief that the recent amending of the charter -- the city's constitution -- will help rein in an unruly government.

"Whether they can agree or not, the point is they've actually made some positive changes, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out over time," said H. Richard Duden III, a lawyer who chaired a citizens' panel created by the city last year to study how to improve government.

"Most of our recommendations asked the council to cede power, and we realized that's a difficult question to ask of any governing body," Duden said. "But let's just say I'm not shedding any tears for them in terms of losing too much power."

Struggle to change city government is decades-old. But the most recent council actions began last year with recommendations from the Duden panel, officially the Annapolis Governmental Structure and Charter Revision Commission.

Recommendations the council embraced include:

Giving voters the right to punish elected officials for doing a bad job through recall elections.

Establishing a commission to revise the boundaries of each voting district and develop a study of the charter.

Creating the position of a city administrator, answerable to the mayor, to manage the daily affairs of the city and department heads.

Transferring the council's authority to approve subdivisions and conditional-use applications to the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals. Conditional use involves such issues as the hours of operation and number of seats restaurants and sidewalk cafes may be allowed.

Not too surprisingly, the council also concurred with the Duden commission that a city manager form of government was a bad idea. It relies on a manager to handle day-to-day operations and makes the mayor's role largely ceremonial. Three council members are planning mayoral runs this year -- Democrat Carl O. Snowden, Republican M. Theresa DeGraff and independent Dean L. Johnson.

Rejection of a city manager was about as far as agreement went.

Snowden believes that "landmark decisions" have been made. "We've substantially strengthened the mayor's seat and given away much of our power," said Snowden, who supported the amendments.

Democratic Alderman Shepard Tullier disagreed: "You can't give away something that you shouldn't have had in the first place."

Alderman Ellen O. Moyer, also a Democrat, is outraged. "By the virtue of our role as elected officials, it was our responsibility. We shouldn't have given our power away," she said.

Other council members questioned their colleagues' understanding.

"I don't think everyone understood what each amendment and bill meant," said Johnson, chairman of the city rules committee who helped prepare the legislation. "A lot of it was complicated. That might explain some of the confusion.

"It's clear that we didn't give away power. We merely clarified things a little," Johnson said.

Citizens probably won't even notice the changes, political observers said. On paper, it appears that the council has moved away from being a judicial body and toward being a legislative body.

State law requires a board of unelected citizens to make land-use and zoning decisions -- and this change now brings Annapolis in line with that law. Most municipalities place that power in a board of appeals, experts say. Whether it takes the politics out of zoning decisions is more questionable.

And regardless which body -- a board of appeals or council -- hears requests for zoning changes, citizens must go through the same tedious process.

The only real beneficiaries of the charter amendment may be council members who can look forward to shorter meetings. They spent six of 10 meetings in the last four months of last year dealing with zoning matters.

"It's the best thing we could ever have done," Snowden said. "I can't tell you how tired I was of sitting there after midnight wondering why I was hearing testimony about how far back a fence should be moved."

Creating a city administrator position may help to concentrate power in the mayor's hand, but the council still will have to approve the mayor's selection, Duden said.

Some aldermen believe the legislation will be revisited to tighten language on the administrator's job qualifications.

As written, the legislation does not require even a high school diploma of the administrator. "It could open the door for cronyism," Duden warned.

Overall, while council members laud their bold action in changing government, they rejected some suggestions of the commission.

Nonpartisan elections, for example, were voted down, as were proposals to eliminate term limits for the mayor, abolish aldermanic committees and prohibit aldermen from interfering in the daily operations of the city.

"The Annapolis city council hasn't tied their hands by any means," said Stephen R. McHenry, associate director of legislation for the Maryland Municipal League. "What they did was take a half-step towards the council manager form of government.

"Their action wasn't monumental; it falls somewhere in the middle."

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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