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Charter, the Government of Choice for Frederick County

This is a slightly edited version of my most recent post  in the dated July 12, 2010

Forms of MD County Governments by Population

Over the course of the last few months, I have made it pretty clear that I believe that Frederick County’s current form of government is outdated and not appropriate for the complex obligations that face our community … especially  as we dig deeper into the 21stCentury.  In several of my posts on the MacRo Report Blog, I have gone as far as suggesting that maybe it is time to merge the entire governments of Frederick City and Frederick County.  I will not repeat here the many reasons that I still feel that at the very least some level of combining corresponding departments in the respective jurisdictions would achieve enormous efficiencies, costs saving to taxpayers and more government accountability.

With all that said as part of my series on governmental structure in Frederick County,  I thought I’d offer up this primer with a few facts … and thoughts.

Responsibilities of Government

Let’s start with the responsibilities of our local government to it citizens which are essentially the same throughout Maryland.  These are:

  1. General Government (budgeting and accounting, legal, planning and zoning, alcoholic beverage control, etc.)
  2. Public Safety
  3. Public Works
  4. Health
  5. Education
  6. Libraries
  7. Recreation and Parks
  8. Land Planning and Development
  9. Debt Service

In my last article in the entitled Governing Frederick County – Part 2, I provided some background on how the County Commissioner form of government evolved out of its agrarian heritage where only a few of the above nine responsibilities were administered by that part-time governing committee.  At the same time all of Frederick County’s 12 municipalities adopted a charter form of government so as to deal with the more complex obligations of government on the list above.

Three Forms of Governance

The essential functions of all U.S. government structures are typically vested in three separately empowered branches: executive, legislative and judicial.  At a national level, the most obvious example is in the President (executive), Congress (legislative) and the Supreme Court (judicial).  This is the classic Charter form of government which provides the well known “Separation of Powers” … also the best way we know put checks and balances into the system.  This structure is found at the state level as well.  But for the 23 counties in Maryland, the state’s Constitution provides a couple of more options.  Besides Charter, there is the Commissioner form as well as something known as Code Home Rule.

Here is quick updated and edited summary that I stole from a piece put together by the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce back in 2002:

Commissioner: With this form of government, legislative and executive powers are granted to one body of elected officials by the General Assembly to an elected Board of Commissioners.  In other words, commissioner counties cannot legislate in areas where the Maryland General Assembly has not granted them authority.  In those areas where the county has been given authority, it is strictly defined.  In short, commissioner counties do not enjoy constitutional home rule power and the General Assembly exercises substantial control over them.

Charter Home Rule:  As suggested in the name, charter counties operate under a formal charter that describes the local governmental structure and which has been adopted by the voters.  The General Assembly grants charter counties a measure of independence in adopting legislation relevant and specific to the county.  In charter counties, executive and legislative powers can be divided between an elected county executive and an elected county council or such powers can be retained entirely by an elected county council that, in turn, appoints an administrator or manager.

Code Home Rule:  This form of government is often viewed as a combination of commissioner and charter forms.  The commissioners, who have both executive and legislative powers, are granted home rule powers and can amend, repeal or pass local laws.  While the General Assembly can still pass some local laws for the county, the code home rule county has more autonomy to act on local legislation.  Code counties do not have a formal charter.

From Horse and Buggy to the BMW 5 Series

As the responsibilities of Governments increase in complexity, it is clear from studying the forms of government that the Charter Home Rule eventually becomes the structure of choice.  I’ve put together the above chart which shows the correlation of the most populated Maryland counties to the form of government each operate under (click on chart to enlarge).  For reference purpose I have also included the cities of Baltimore and Frederick.  Lead by Montgomery with over 970,000 people, Frederick is the seventh most populated county in the state at over 225,000.  All of the six counties that re more populated than Frederick got the message years ago and are charter home rule counties.  After Frederick the remaining counties are all rural based with seven under the commissioner, six under code home rule and three as charter.

As our community continues face the many challenges of being part of the third point of the triad of the Washington / Baltimore Metropolitan areas, it is time to retire the horse and buggy era Board of County Commissioner form of government and move into the 21st Century with a structure that provides its citizens with a Charter form that holds our elected officials more accountable for their actions, but also provides them with a more respected voice in Annapolis.

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The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland.

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