Some members of the Frederick County Charter Review Commission say they are ready to look at the county budget process and the balance of power between the county executive and council to see if some changes to the county charter need to be made.
After just five years of using this new form of county executive/council government, would Charter Review Commission members think that it might be time for such a significant, fundamental change?
The charter does create a fairly powerful executive office. Here’s how the budget process works now: The county executive holds public hearings in December and March and then introduces a budget to the County Council by April 15.
The council can decrease line items in that budget, outside of education funding, but it cannot increase line items without approval of the executive. The budget must be passed by the council by May 31, and requires at least four “yes” votes. The executive’s budget automatically would become law if the council can’t reach a majority vote.
The roles are similar to the state, where the Maryland General Assembly reviews the budget proposed by governor but cannot increase a line item without the governor’s agreement. The state has no provision for the governor’s budget to become law if the Legislature cannot agree.
In the few years that the Frederick County charter has been in force, no budget has failed to reach majority approval. So, what seems to be the problem?
John Daniels, the commission’s vice chair, told News-Post reporter Steve Bohnel that he has heard from current and former council members and county residents who see the need for giving the council more power, especially in the annual budget process.
“It’s conceivable that’s one of the things that could advance, but it’s way too early for me to predicate about what’s on the other end,” Daniels said.
He added, however, that on the surface, giving the council more power might create a more “chaotic” situation during budget season, given competing priorities.
Writing a budget is quintessentially an executive function. And giving the County Council power to increase spending in various line items without negotiating with the executive on reductions elsewhere is a recipe for gridlock and ultimately, disaster.
The sharing of power envisioned in the charter requires sensible compromise between the executive and council members. If we ever reach a situation where four of the seven council members cannot come to an agreement on a budget, we will have much more serious problems in this county.
Some commission members recognize the problem with acting too soon. Paul Gilligan said he would need to be convinced that the current balance between the county executive and council is inadequate. And Dylan Diggs told our reporter:
“I think we need to be open to the possibility of just doing tweaks and seeing how this experiment plays out. If there are [big changes], we need to do it, but if we keep on changing every five years based off of five years of experience ... then we might not be learning much.”
Exactly. Let’s give the charter at least a decade before we decide that we got it wrong the first time. If issues arise, we will see the problems and can then start working on solutions. But not yet.