This year, our ballots include two very important proposed charter amendments. These amendments will give the voters the opportunity to decide certain vacancies on the County Council (Question C) and the County Executive (Question D). I proposed these amendments because I firmly believe that whenever we can return these important decisions to the voters, we have a responsibility to do so.
Currently, our charter only allows these vacancies to be filled by appointments made by the County Council, for nominees presented by one of the party central committees. Under these two proposed amendments, any vacancy that occurs in either elected position during the first year of a term would be filled by special election in the following year, during the normal presidential election cycle. The winner of the special election would then serve the remaining two years of the original term.
Only two other charter counties in Maryland fail to offer special elections for these two important positions — Baltimore and Cecil counties. All eight other Maryland charter counties provide for different variations on special elections for these positions. It’s high time that Frederick County join them in giving this power back to the people.
We will still need to make appointments for these positions when a vacancy occurs. If these amendments are ratified in November, then an appointee filling a vacancy in the first year of a term would serve temporarily until the new elected official is determined in the special election. Otherwise, an appointee filling a vacancy beyond the first year would serve for the remainder of the full term.
These charter amendments make a few very important changes in how we make these appointments. First, these won’t be closed-door decisions. The council will be required to bring these nominees to the public, including making their qualifications available for the position, conducting public interviews and enabling public comment during the process. During a normal election, the campaign process is how the public vets these individuals. When we need to appoint people to fill a vacancy in one of these positions, we need to ensure public transparency and participation to the greatest extent possible.
Second, in 2018 the voters passed a charter amendment for council member vacancies. It required that the party affiliation when the vacating member was last elected (rather than the current affiliation) determines the party central committee that nominates the replacement. Question C revises that language to simplify and clarify, but doesn’t change the requirement enacted in 2018. Question D adds the same requirement for County Executive appointments.
Third, Question D also provides for what happens when the council can’t make a decision on a County Executive appointment. We can’t allow the county to be leaderless for too long. If the council can’t agree on an appointment after the 45-day deadline, then this amendment requires the council to appoint the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO).
Fourth, Question D provides one last change that I think is very important. Currently, the party central committee of the vacating executive could choose to nominate only a single individual and our council would be required to appoint that person. The party central committee — largely consisting of people you’ve never heard of — would be able to hand-pick the new executive. I think is so wrong and under this amendment, the committee would have to send three nominees to the Council — just like under council vacancies — shifting the authority back to the council where it belongs.
Now, you’re going to hear from people that don’t like my amendments in Question D. They’re going to say that it will lead to too many temporary executives, which is bad for continuity of government. So let’s address this.
Currently, if we have the misfortune of losing an executive, we would have three people in that position — the original executive, the CAO for a few weeks, and an appointee. In the worst case, if the executive vacates shortly after an election, that appointee — hand-picked by the party central committee — could be in power for most of the four-year term and you would have no say in it.
Under Question D, if the vacancy occurs in the first year, then the central committee’s appointee could only serve less than two years, and would be replaced by your selection. Your votes will determine the executive for the final two years of the term. Personally, I will always prefer the voters to make this decision. You can have continuity of government, with an appointee selected by party officials you hardly know, who may serve for years — but at what cost? If you agree with me, vote “FOR” questions C and D.
Steve McKay is a Frederick County council member representing District 2.