After hours of debate at past meetings over issues like bill-drafting protocol and legislative definitions, the Frederick County Council passed an amended Rules of Procedure with just over one minute of discussion on Tuesday.
It was just enough time to consider one final recommended change to the rules by Councilman Jerry Donald: that the council go cellphone-free on the dais.
“My thought was — and I’m guilty of this — we do use cellphones. We look at cellphones. You interested in going cellphone-free up here?” he said, looking around at his fellow council members. “Could we just hand ’em all over to Ragen [Cherney, the council’s chief of staff] and get them back at the end of the meeting?”
His suggestion was met with skepticism.
“Why don’t we just use rice paper?” Councilman Billy Shreve quipped.
“You can use rice paper,” Donald responded.
Donald said he thought of the possible rule last-minute, and wanted the council to consider it as a way to improve communication between council members.
“It was just simply a thought that maybe we could go cellphone-free up here and listen to each other,” Donald said.
Council members sit behind a raised bench, so it’s difficult to see if they’re looking at their phones during meetings. Donald wouldn’t say if any specific problems prompted his proposal.
Councilman Tony Chmelik — perhaps airing some family business — responded that he’d just taken away one of his children’s cellphones earlier that day.
“Well, you can give up both of them then,” Donald joked.
Ultimately, the council decided to chew on Donald’s request for a while, before voting 5-2 to let other procedural changes take effect, such as changing the council’s procedure for public comments and scaling back the role of treasurer.
Shreve and Councilman Kirby Delauter voted against the final version of the rules.
Speaking of telephones, Delauter also said this week that he’s continually upset with what he calls hurdles council members have to jump over to talk with county staff members.
Essentially, council members forward questions to Cherney, who forwards them to County Executive Jan Gardner’s chief administrative officer, Doug Browning, who directs questions to the appropriate staff person.
“To me, it’s ridiculous to go through that process to talk to people because it can take two or three days,” Delauter said.
He said his intention is speed, not to interfere with county governance.
“I don’t want to tell [staff members] they can or can’t do something. I just want them to give me an answer,” he said.
To show his frustration, Delauter forwarded me an email last week in which a staff member at the county’s Office of Economic Development redirected his questions, on behalf of FSK Holiday Inn owner Randy Cohen, to Browning.
Delauter responded angrily.
“That’s total Bullshit………….but then again,” Delauter wrote back. “I’ll have Randy contact you directly since as an elected official we get treated like third graders from the worthless CE,” referring to the county executive.
He then suggested that Cohen contact the employee — who was copied on the email — directly.
“I don’t have the time to spend to go thru the layers of bureaucratic bullshit that CE Gardner has put in place,” Delauter wrote.
Gardner, who was not included on the emails, said Thursday that Delauter’s response was “over the top.”
She learned about the exchange only after the message was forwarded through county staff members and back to her. Gardner said the employee redirected Delauter’s questions because he was not involved in the issue Delauter sought information about and was not a division director or department head, to whom questions are usually directed.
Gardner said the process for handling constituent service emails was set up between her staff members and the council’s staff members.
Gardner said the executive and legislative branch staffs worked together to create the system, so staff members wouldn’t be overwhelmed by seven separate requests from each council member on one constituent issue.
“It’s absolutely not impossible for them to talk to county staff. This whole focus is about constituent service,” Gardner said, adding that a high percentage of questions get a response within a day. “... I think the system is working for the majority of council members.”
Donald said he agreed that the system works without difficulty when he’s had to forward such concerns.
“We have issues, but to me, this isn’t one of them,” he said, adding that a streamlined process helps council members address constituent problems quickly.
One helping of crow
In an unrelated chain of emails forwarded to The Frederick News-Post this week, Shreve and Delauter expressed disappointment not only with county government policies, but also the form of county government entirely.
Republican Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, who was copied on the multiple email messages, suggested that the councilmen and others “push a movement to go back to the County Commissioner form of government. It worked!”
When another person on the email list suggested that a lot of Republicans who supported charter government before Gardner, a Democrat, took office would have to “eat crow” to support a reversal, Jenkins responded.
“I have no crow to eat because I predicted it would be [a] total disaster as it is turning out to be,” he wrote. “But wouldn’t everyone choke down a little crow if things could be fixed? Just take a big bite and swallow hard.”
Shreve also wrote that he would favor a repeal.
Delauter said he didn’t vote for charter government and is frequently reminded why, though he’s still considering a run for county executive in 2018.
“If I was county executive, [charter government] would be great …,” Delauter said, before adding that he was joking. “I’m kidding. That’s the form of government we have, so I have to live with it.”
Asked about her reaction to facing Delauter in a possible re-election campaign, Gardner was unfazed.
“If that’s what he wants to do, that’s fine,” she said. “There will be an election in two-and-a-half years. I’m sure there will be a number of people who express interest.”