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.