For Balto. Co. Ques­tion A

Our view: A de­cen­nial re­view of the county char­ter is a good idea

Baltimore Sun - - FROM PAGE ONE -

The last time Baltimore County took a com­pre­hen­sive look at its char­ter, pol­i­tics in Tow­son were aboil. It was 1989, and a who’s-who com­mis­sion of county lead­ers, in­clud­ing for­mer County Ex­ec­u­tive Don Hutchin­son and fu­ture ex­ec­u­tive James T. Smith Jr., served on a char­ter re­view com­mis­sion that con­sid­ered is­sues rang­ing from ethics re­forms to whether the merit sys­tem should be re­laxed for top of­fi­cials in county de­part­ments. Mean­while, though, the county was un­der a tax re­volt. Res­i­dents col­lected pe­ti­tions to place a hard cap on county prop­erty tax col­lec­tions and even tried to put a mea­sure on the bal­lot re­turn­ing the county to a com­mis­sioner sys­tem of gov­ern­ment.

The char­ter re­view com­mis­sion re­jected some of the more con­tro­ver­sial ideas it con­sid­ered, like in­creas­ing the num­ber of seats on the County Coun­cil, cre­at­ing a county-wide elected po­si­tion of coun­cil pres­i­dent and lift­ing the two-term limit for county ex­ec­u­tives. (There was some con­cern at the time about whether then-County Ex­ec­u­tive Dennis Rasmussen would ben­e­fit from that last pro­vi­sion, but county vot­ers made it a moot point by hand­ing him a sur­prise de­feat in 1990.) The vot­ers re­jected the tax cap idea and two of the com­mis­sion’s pro­posed amend­ments, which would have in­creased the county ex­ec­u­tive’s power over top-level ap­point­ments and in­creased the size of the county’s Board of Appeals. Other mi­nor re­forms, in­clud­ing a change to how va­can­cies are filled on the County Coun­cil, made it into law.

A lot has changed in Baltimore County since then. Its pop­u­la­tion has grown sub­stan­tially larger and more di­verse, and in many ar­eas it has be­come sig­nif­i­cantly ur­ban­ized. It’s worth con­sid­er­ing again whether changes should be made to its char­ter, and that’s the pur­pose of Ques­tion A on the Baltimore County bal­lot. Spon­sored by David Marks, a Tow­son-Perry Hall Repub­li­can, and sup­ported unan­i­mously by the coun­cil, it would re­quire the county to im­panel a re­view com­mis­sion in the sev­enth year of each decade to study the char­ter, con­sider pro­pos­als for changes and make any rec­om­men­da­tions it sees fit.

It’s not an in­her­ently lib­eral or con­ser­va­tive idea. A com­mis­sion could pro­pose a tax cap (though we hope not) or changes to the bud­get process, like giv­ing the coun­cil greater power to move money around (again, please don’t). It could rec­om­mend cre­at­ing more coun­cil districts — an idea worth con­sid­er­ing, given that each coun­cil mem­ber now rep­re­sents nearly 120,000 peo­ple and that more districts would likely mean greater di­ver­sity in the leg­isla­tive branch. It could han­dle rel­a­tively mun­dane is­sues like re­nam­ing county de­part­ments.

Sev­eral other coun­ties have sim­i­lar re­quire­ments for pe­ri­odic re­views of their char­ters. Howard County, for ex­am­ple, does it ev­ery eight years. The most re­cent round, from 2011, re­sulted in rec­om­men­da­tions de­signed to give the County Coun­cil more time to con­sider com­plex leg­is­la­tion, ease the re­quire­ments to pe­ti­tion lo­cal laws to a ref­er­en­dum, and align lo­cal open records laws with their state equiv­a­lents. Mont­gomery County has a per­ma­nent char­ter re­view com­mis­sion, which is­sues rec­om­men­da­tions ev­ery two years. Its 2016 re­port calls for a char­ter amend­ment to al­low for spe­cial elec­tions to fill any va­cancy in the of­fice of county ex­ec­u­tive. It plans in the next two years to study the ques­tion of term lim­its for coun­cil mem­bers and ex­ec­u­tives, coun­cil re­dis­trict­ing pro­ce­dure, and the re­quire­ments to cir­cum­vent the county’s prop­erty tax cap.

The 2012 char­ter re­view in Anne Arun­del County came at a pro­pi­tious time. Ini­tially, the group had de­cided against rec­om­mend­ing any changes to the process of fil­ing va­can­cies on the County Coun­cil. Then it re­con­sid­ered after the coun­cil dead­locked over whom to ap­point to serve out the term of a mem­ber who went to jail on fed­eral tax fraud charges, fail­ing after dozens of votes and mul­ti­ple meet­ings to set­tle on a can­di­date. In light of those events, and the in­dict­ment that spring of then-County Ex­ec­u­tive John Leopold on a num­ber of mis­con­duct counts, the com­mis­sion also rec­om­mended changes to the pro­ce­dure for re­mov­ing coun­cil mem­bers and ex­ec­u­tives from of­fice. Not sur­pris­ingly un­der the cir­cum­stances, the vot­ers of Anne Arun­del voted in fa­vor.

Baltimore County isn’t as shaken up po­lit­i­cally as it was in 1989, nor is it as scan­dal-rid­den as Anne Arun­del was in 2012. But a pe­ri­odic re­view of the county’s ba­sic gov­ern­ment struc­ture is still a good idea. We urge county vot­ers to sup­port Ques­tion A.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.