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Governing Frederick County – Part 2

Putting the Proper Framework in Place for Future Governance

Framework for Future Governing in Frederick County, MarylandThis is the complete text of my June 28, 2010 article posted in the  It is the second part of my thoughts on why the Commissioner form of governance is outdated and should be replaced with a Charter Government.   Part 1 focused on the role of a governing body and how easy it is for it to stray from its duties.

Up until just 50 years ago the economy of Frederick County ran purely on the business of agricultural. Our 12 incorporated areas (Frederick City, Thurmont, Middletown, Brunswick, etc.) were centers of trade that served the farming community. 

Each one of these trade centers had their own governing bodies – typically known as a charter form of governing; they operate with an elected executive (mayor or burgess) and a part-time board (aldermen, council, etc.).

In the county, the Board of County Commissioners were typically farmers, who were elected as part time stewards (a committee of sorts), who met occasionally to deal with the basics of what it took to keep the economy going. It was a structure that worked well, as such issues as planning, zoning and public water and sewer were almost nonexistent. Almost all of these matters were left to the incorporated centers, whose governments were structured more appropriately with one elected executive to deal with matters at a deeper level.

With the advent of the Interstate highway systems – specifically 70 North and 70 South (now I-70 and I-270 today) – the demographics of Frederick County began to evolve into what it is today with a very diversified economy. During this evolutionary process the county adopted planning and zoning ordinances, enforcement policies as well as its own public utilities departments to serve its growing population. And with that growth these services have grown very complex and more integrated to serve all county residents.

Without a single elected county executive, the county commissioner form of government does not provide the appropriate structure to hold any one individual accountable for overseeing the process of governing. From the standpoint of leading the organization, while the commissioners themselves “elect” their own president, it usually falls to the top vote getter of the majority party, with the exception of the current administration where the board “elected” the overall top vote getter. In either case the final say of who the “leader” of the county government is not really left to the voters; so, in the end all commissioners are typically looked upon by the public as equals. In times of controversy this structure makes it very easy for one or more commissioners to point fingers “at the other guys” as the irresponsible parties. In other words, the buck has no real place to stop; it is more like the proverbial Hot Potato!

But the problem of operating within a government structure with no single leader is much greater than being able to dodge blame. It also has a tremendously negative impact on the staff directors within government. Direct reporting is much harder and more fractured. In the case of the current administration, it is much worse in that this board has a strong tendency to micromanage. This trait gives staff the impression that their abilities can’t be trusted, which in many cases creates a culture where many tend not to work to their fullest potential because they expect their bosses will end up meddling with their work anyway.

The current commissioners have given us a number of great examples that I have referenced in my MacRo Report Blog posts.

Look at the inability of these commissioners to arrive at an understanding with Land Stewarts in their attempt to enter into a Developers Rights and Responsibility Agreement for a final plan to complete the Lake Linganore PUD. In that case, there were five different opinions and – in essence – five different negotiators representing the county government, each in their own way giving out different and very mixed messages. Under a charter form of government, it would have been the responsibility of the county executive to complete the negotiations and bring it back to the board for approval.

The other example is the new Comprehensive Plan that was adopted by the commissioners in April. After spending a good bit of time looking into how this plan was actually developed, it was clear to me that the planning staff, which is professionally trained, were micromanaged by certain commissioners to the point that staff often had to wait for directives from those commissioners on what to write into certain sections of the plan. Under a charter form, a properly functioning county executive position would act as gatekeeper to prevent efforts of board member to micromanage.

Charter government comes in many shapes and sizes, but it is a must for a much better functioning Frederick County government. We must have a county executive in one form or another. This position is considerably different than that of our current county manager, who is responsible for managing staff verses having policy making authority.

The other real concern that I have expressed in my many MacRo Report Blog posts on this topic is the lack of coordination and communication that exists between the commissioners and its 12 incorporated cities and towns. For all practical purposes and especially in the case between Frederick City and Frederick County governments, there is none. In addition there are a multitude of duplicated departments such as planning, public works, economic development and law enforcement, just to name few. Imagine the amount of efficiency and cost savings to the taxpayers that are likely if just these four services could be merged with their individual counter parts.

Frederick County has reached a point where is it no longer the agrarian community of the early 20th century. The transportation networks of highways and airports alone have pushed Frederick County into the third city in connection with the Baltimore and Washington regions. Our strong and diversified employment base is growing more and more integrated into a regional triad of cities. To that end we need to begin looking at Frederick County as a unified county, and develop a better governmental structure that promotes a single voice within the greater region, the state and the nation.

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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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