Four Frederick County Council members offered insight this week on the county budget process and whether committees involved in the legislative process should be allowed, as part of a wider discussion of the county charter.
Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D) and Vice President Michael Blue (R), along with council members Jerry Donald (D) and Jessica Fitzwater (D), joined a crowded table in the third-floor meeting room at Winchester Hall on Thursday as Charter Review Commission members asked them about their experience with the charter.
The commission has until Feb. 28 to submit a report of recommendations to the County Council. The council will then review those recommendations, and the county attorney must complete any changes by late July. Those changes would be put up for referendum in time for the 2020 general election ballot on Nov. 3 of next year.
Charter Review Commission member April Miller asked council members about holding a joint public hearing with the council and county executive before they receive the executive’s proposed budget April 15. Miller added it would likely make the process more transparent to the public.
Chief Administrative Officer Rick Harcum suggested that change could happen without amending the county charter, but Miller replied that having it codified would require the meeting to happen, rather than just as a policy.
“If we have a county executive and council that can’t meet in a room, then we’ve got some bigger problems,” Miller said.
Fitzwater was open to the idea, as the county executive and entire council don’t typically meet much under the current charter. Council members would also need to know their budget priorities for that meeting, prior to receiving the budget.
“It really holds every council member’s feet to the fire,” she said. “I could see that as a powerful step in the budget process.”
Council members also submitted written comments to the commission about the charter. Donald wrote that allowing the council to move money within the executive’s proposed budget would require more staff and council time. Right now, the council has only the ability to cut funding from the executive’s budget.
“My long point is if you give this power to the council it will significantly change the job and could, realistically, impact who can afford to do the job. ... If this change is made to the Charter we will need a budget director and probably a full-time attorney,” Donald wrote.
Keegan-Ayer, however, suggested that the charter should allow the council to move money, if five council members agree to it and the overall budget isn’t increased.
“If a super majority of the Council takes issue with the funding priorities in the [county executive’s] budget, they cannot make changes without going to the [county executive] and requesting those changes ... This hardly seems to give a true balance to the two branches of government from a budget perspective.”
Keegan-Ayer also suggested having committees assist with fact-finding for legislative issues, especially after legislation is enacted. She specifically mentioned the solar ordinance she drafted, which set guidelines on where solar arrays are allowed countywide.
Commission member Walter Olson asked Keegan-Ayer about that proposal, noting that Montgomery County and other jurisdictions have standing committees that participate heavily and even have voting power in the legislative process.
Keegan-Ayer said she didn’t envision the committees having that powerful of a role.
“The question is, is the legislation doing what it intended to?” she said, adding it would have been good to have such a body review the solar ordinance on a quarterly basis.
The commission’s next meeting is Sept. 19 at 7 p.m.