The Frederick County Council is considering a change to its rules for adopting legislation during the current pandemic. We encourage the council to think carefully about this, because it is a radical change.
The idea would potentially permit the council to introduce a bill and approve it in the same meeting, bypassing the procedures stipulated by the county charter to insure careful and public consideration of new county laws.
Under the draft of the bill that Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer put on the agenda this week, the County Council would be able to suspend its typical procedure of holding a workshop, first reading, second reading/public hearing and third reading/final vote in separate meetings.
The change was very briefly on the council’s agenda but was removed to give more time for review by County Executive Jan Gardner and her staff.
We are skeptical that this change is necessary, particularly because neither Keegan-Ayer nor the county attorney were able to point to any specific piece of legislation that would require such urgency. We cannot think of one either.
According to the draft, the proposed change would cover certain bills because of the coronavirus pandemic and the “catastrophic health emergency.”
It would differ from the existing emergency legislation process, Keegan-Ayer said, because those bills still need to go through an introduction and public hearing process in separate meetings. After that, a bill can either become law immediately or in less than the 60 days set by the charter.
The current proposal could compress that process to a single meeting.
“Whether it all gets done in one meeting or two meetings, it’s to shorten that six-week timeframe,” Keegan-Ayer told News-Post reporter Steve Bohnel.
County Attorney John Mathias told our reporter that Gardner and the County Council have the authority to enact a quicker legislative process because of Gov. Larry Hogan’s state of emergency and the executive orders he has signed since early March.
“I think the council is not going to use this very often and it will be limited to something that might require immediate action,” Mathias said. “They can only do it as long as the governor’s orders stay in place.”
We are leery of such a change because we have trouble conceiving a problem so urgent that it would have to be addressed that very day of the meeting. Perhaps the Gardner administration or the council president can provide such an example and persuade the public that the power is necessary.
But the council should be very careful to restrict such action to the clearest instances of absolute necessity. The bill should specify the circumstances in which the emergency power would be used and should, if possible, limit the time any bill approved under the process would be in effect.
Both the slower normal process and the current emergency process in the charter are there to ensure full consideration and public comment on changes to the laws. Laws made in haste frequently have unintended consequences that legislators live to regret.
We cannot know how long the pandemic emergency is going to last, nor whether a second wave will hit in the fall. We may be in this emergency for quite a while.
The state and the county need to be nimble in their responses, but too-quick lawmaking may be going too far. Let’s think hard about this change.