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Two County Executives Speak to Charter Writing Board

Frederick County gathers ideas from Harford and Howard County Executives.

County Execs Craig and Ullman speak to the Frederick County Charter Board Meeting 09-01-11In its regular with the county executives from Harford and Howard Counties.

The discussion focused on how charter home rule works within the two counties that both share similar populations to Frederick County. With Frederick at 235,000 people, Harford County has a population of about 245,000, while Howard is higher with 289,000 citizens.

David Craig is a republican Executive in Harford County with deep experience at several levels of government including service on the state legislature.

Ken Ulman, a democrat, is the County Executive in Howard, which is one of the few Maryland counties that has no municipalities.

These individuals head the executive branch of their governments, while their county councils are responsible for the local legislative duties. This is the significant difference between the Charter form of government verses the Commissioner form, where both the executive and legislative functions rest with one body.

Board Vice Chair Bob Kresslein had prepared a number of questions for the guests that fellow members reviewed and approved in advance.

The discussion opened with each executive sharing the size and structure of their councils and staff.

Harford County has a council made up of seven members — six elected from districts and one at large.  These offices serve 4 year terms without limitations; however, the County Executive position is restricted to two 4 year terms.

Mr. Ulman explained that Howard is made up of five council members who are eligible to serve no more than three 4 year terms, while the executive is limited to two 4 year terms.

Much of the early discussion centered on the checks and balances involved in setting the county budget process and how much staff each body is allowed to have under their charters. For example, in Harford, the executive branch is allowed to have its own staff attorney and the county council is also provided one. In Howard, the county attorney”s office represents both bodies.

Council members are consider truly part-time positions with limitations on how often they can meet to legislate. In Harford, the salary for each council member is $35,000 — considerably less than that of the salaries of the Frederick County Commissioners.

Mr. Craig stated that his salary is set at $102,000, which again is considerably less than that of the current Frederick County manager”s income.

There was some very interesting conversation around the comprehensive planning and zoning processes in Howard and Harford.  Questions centered on the potential of parochialism in land use decisions among council members who represent districts.  Both Ulman and Craig stated that while it does exist, the system seems to work well.  The two counties have different structures of how a planning board operates with one council taking on the role of site plan reviews and approvals, while the other gives review powers to an appointed planning board and staff level authority.

Both county charters make clear distinction on how council members can interact with county staff members, with non-interference provisions that restrict them from meddling in day to day county operations.

One of the most important advantages that Ulman and Craig sees to the Charter Home Rule form of government is strength that the county executive position has in being able to “deliver the message in Annapolis.” according the Mr. Ulman.

Much more can get accomplished by one person, when it is clear to the powers to be at the state capital that there is one voice representing the county, stated Craig.

Both executives expounded on the fact that the seven counties with a greater population that Frederick County are all charter governments. The executives of this group are collectively known as Maryland”s Big Seven, who meet with the Speaker of the House and the President of the State Senate several times a year.

“Arguably Frederick County should be in the those meetings,” stated Mr. Ulman.

The final part of the conversation centered on getting the executives to give their impressions of the definition of a strong county executive.

Mr. Ulman stated that the executive must have enough power to “make things work to deliver services and not have things bogged down in red tape … with that said your Charter [Board] has to find the “sweet spot” to balance the power [between the two bodies] … devil is in the details,” he said.

Mr. Craig concluded stating that there is “a misconception that there is only one person who runs the county in the County Executive position. It is not as powerful as people may think,” he said.

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Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He is an appointed member of the Frederick County Charter Board. He also writes for .

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