Winchester Hall

The Winchester Hall county office building on East Church Street.

A majority of Frederick County Charter Review Commission members have identified the budget process and balance of power between the county executive and council as some key issues they could debate going forward.

The seven-member board is tasked with reviewing the 26-page charter and submitting any written recommendation on changes to the County Council by the end of February.

Commission members said Monday that although they’ve identified the above issues, they’re still waiting to hear from more groups — current and past council members, County Executive Jan Gardner (D) and other officials — before developing any concrete opinions on what to change.

John Daniels, the commission’s vice chair, said he’s heard from current and former council members and county residents who see the need for giving the council more power, especially in the annual budget process.

“It’s conceivable that’s one of the things that could advance, but it’s way too early for me to predicate about what’s on the other end,” Daniels said.

He added, however, that on the surface, giving the council more power might create a more “chaotic” situation during budget season, given competing priorities.

Currently, the county executive, after holding public hearings in December and March, must introduce a proposed budget to the County Council by April 15, according to the charter. Council members can only decrease line items in that budget, outside of education funding. The budget must be passed by the council by May 31, which requires at least four “yes” votes. The executive’s budget automatically becomes law if the council can’t reach a majority vote.

Paul Gilligan, another commission member, said he’s open to discussing the budget process, but that he would need to be convinced that the current system between the county executive and council is inadequate.

Ultimately, he sees the commission’s role as reviewing the charter as a set of “tools” that county government operates under. It’s important, he said, that he and his colleagues understand that any change could have a significant impact.

The charter is “a tool of the trade, and you have to outline the rules,” Gilligan said. “Every word matters in those things. ... You want to make sure you understand every word of that contract that you live by.”

So far, the commission has set up its organizational structure and had a lengthy discussion with members of the county’s original charter writing board at its last meeting earlier this month.

Those members discussed, among other issues, the budget process and the structure of County Council representation. Multiple members said that given the charter has only been enacted since 2014, it’s probably best not to make too many changes.

Dylan Diggs, a Charter Review Commission member, said he understands the last point.

“I think we need to to be open to the possibility of just doing tweaks and seeing how this experiment plays out,” Diggs said. “If there are [big changes], we need to do it, but if we keep on changing every five years based off of five years of experience ... then we might not be learning much.”

Commission member April Miller said she has a unique perspective on the charter, having served on the county’s Board of Education. She’s open to examining the budget process between the county executive and council, given the current time frame of completing that document.

It may need to be more collaborative and include more public input, Miller said.

Commission member Walter Olson said that despite feedback from the original charter writing board about redistricting and eliminating the at-large seats, he’s a fan of the current system: five districts and two at-large seats. That system allows a diverse set of viewpoints, Olson said.

In the next few months, the commission will most likely narrow the scope of its work to between four and six main issues.

“It’s the unlimited nature of the seas that we’re setting out on that it can make the path seem large,” Olson said. “And yet obviously a couple months from now, we’re going to have a much more narrow task in front of us.”

Miller said the remaining work of the commission relates back to why the charter was written.

“The whole reason it was introduced was to be a more responsive form of government,” she said. “And that’s the most important thing for me. Is this form of government being more responsive to citizens?”

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

(5) comments

DickD

Our current charter was written by the Blaine gang, for Blaine. If they knew Jan would be CE, it would have been written differently.

Blueline

... Can only decrease item funding, except for education." - There's an inherent flaw in the process to start with.

public-redux

Two flaws, actually. The Council should also have the authority to increase item funding.

DickD

Subject to veto?

public-redux

Obviously.

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