We’ve heard some healthy ideas debated over the past few years for tweaking the county’s charter — the new, guiding document for the switchover from five commissioners to a county executive and seven-member council. Three are compelling, and should be debated as the new council takes its seat in the new year. We believe they’re worth considering because they’ll improve governance in Frederick County and spur elected county officials to be better guardians of the public trust.

More council power over the budget: Justin Kiska, a Republican who lost his bid for an at-large council seat in the June primary, made a suggestion during his campaign that the council be given greater powers when it comes to the budget. This has been an area of concern for us as well. The charter as written gives the county executive tremendous authority to set the budget with little say for members of the council, other than approval or denial.

Members of the council can’t adjust the budget, meaning they won’t be able to add anything — and that’s as it should be and avoids the controversy that could arise through each council member trying to pack pet district projects into the budget. But they can’t subtract anything, either. This take-it-or-leave-it proposition means the spending reflects only the will of the county executive, and could lead to gridlock should a majority on the council be from a different political party and disagree with the executive’s direction. It also leaves little room for any educational discussion.

One useful, and minor, adjustment would be allowing council members to cut the budget and reallocate the money, should they choose. As well as being a more robust check and balance, this would also encourage debate, out of which the best ideas can arise. A simple yes or no doesn’t capture the complexity of the multimillion-dollar county budget. Think of it this way: We’ll be going from five minds giving their input to just one, and that seems like a step backward.

Recall: The buyer’s remorse in this election is palpable, with words like “corruption” being loosely thrown around. Much of this election is a referendum on the last three years of the administration led by Commissioners President Blaine Young. Even two years ago, residents were so outraged, they came before a hearing of the local delegation to the General Assembly and asked them to lobby the Legislature for a recall law, which the state lacks.

We support that still. “It should be a rigorous process, one that is not subject to frivolous or narrow concerns, purely political motivations, or to a small number of disgruntled residents,” we opined in a Dec. 7, 2011, editorial. “But the ability to pursue recall should be available if the level of discontent is high and wide and the concerns are credible.”

Ethics: Remember Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson? Remember the bra-stuffing incident with his wife, when he instructed her to pad her undergarments with money to keep it from being found by FBI agents? Remember the bribes from developers? That could happen here. At the very least, we can expect an onslaught of lobbying as the shadowy underside of the positive argument for why we needed to adopt a charter government — the county’s growth.

Our final recommendation is a stronger ethics law, one that allows the public to chart who’s trying to influence whom, one with some teeth that acts to encourage ethical behavior and punish elected officials who fall short. We also need a bigger ethics commission to minimize the likelihood of vote-stacking, something all too easy to do with only three members.

We’re interested in hearing what the candidates have to say about improving the charter.

(14) comments

jacksback

Who wrote this confounded charter anyway, Glenn Beck???

Extra Ignored

If you elect the same people to office it isn't going to matter what the law says.

The law says the liaison to the Planning Committee does not vote but Blaine Young votes.

jill king

The recall rule would end up in courts. Some follow through on research would help greatly when writing editorials.

Extra Ignored

Nothing says you have to follow the Virginia model. It can be done by vote.

Recall of elected officials in Virginia is made available through Virginia statutes. Unlike other states that hold recall elections however, when citizens have petitioned for a recall, it is then sent to the state Circuit Courts for trial.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/scott-walker-wins-wisconsin-recall-election/

jill king

Ummm... the third suggestion is already adopted through referendum in 2012 and the third one has to go through the state.

guido207

"Remember the bribes from developers? That could happen here."

Ya think?

"At the very least, we can expect an onslaught of lobbying..." Look at Blaine Young's list of campaign contributors. $500,000 says they weren't willing to wait for Charter Government to start the lobbying....

The form of government isn't going to prevent an unethical person from being unethical. We just need to elect ethical people.

SaveFrederick

The charter already allows for the council to delete or reduce the budget put forth by the County Executive. It does not allow the council to add. This is a valid point of discussion and would require a charter change.

Jan Gardner is already proposing as part of her platform the creation of an independent ethics commission and stronger ethics laws. This will require council support since it is legislative. Doubtful that Blaine would support stronger ethics laws since he played a big role in weakening the ethics rules and voted to take out the penalties. Don't think stronger ethics laws requires a charter change.

Extra Ignored

506. Action on the Budget by the Council
(a) After a public hearing, the Council may decrease or delete any items in the Budget, except those required by State law, by provisions for debt service on obligations then outstanding or for estimated cash deficits. The Council shall have no power to change the form of the Budget as submitted by the Executive, to alter revenue estimates, or to increase any expenditure recommended by the Executive, unless expressly provided in State law and except to correct mathematical errors.

http://frederickcountymd.gov/documents/1086/Adopted%20Frederick%20County%20Charter_201211081423273469.pdf

soule1061

The Charter form is a republican form in miniature. The US Constitution is the best guide for the Charter document. The Charter document should set a clear separation of powers between the legislative branch (the County Council) and the executive (the County Executive) and should clearly define the powers and responsibilities of each branch. The republican form of government is the most successful form of democracy ever. The Council members are directly accountable to voters in their districts. They should occasionally be reminded of that.

teacherdbc

Actually, your assertion that the county council can't subtract anything from the budget is inaccurate. See item 506 (a) in the charter, which says that "the Council may decrease or delete any items in the Budget, except those required by State law, by provisions for debt service on obligations then outstanding or for estimated cash deficits."

public-redux

Yes, I too wish the charter drafting committee had been acquainted with the notion of checks and balances.

darththevader

Ummm...there are checks and balances

public-redux

Even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then.

Extra Ignored

What could Frederick County possibly need an ethics commission for. As Blaine Young has so astutely reminded us, if something is unethical then the state law makers will make it illegal. How fortunate for us there is a "higher" power watching over us and prosecuting our elected officials for their unethical acts.

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