Lexington Park, MD — Elections require voters to do their homework. Usually that involves learning about the people on the ballot. In November’s election, St. Mary’s County voters may be required to do some more esoteric and complicated research. A decision on changing the form of government in the county may be on the ballot.
In Maryland there are three forms of county government. St. Mary’s County has always had a commissioner form of government. Under the commissioner form county commissioners can only legislate where the legislature has given them authority. Many local decisions are thus in the hands of the legislature in those counties.
Over time most of the counties in Maryland have switched to either a charter or code home rule form of government. St. Mary’s and five other counties still have a commissioner form of government.
On two separate occasions the voters of St. Mary’s County have rejected charter government, which is now the way things are handled in 12 of the state’s 24 jurisdictions (23 counties and Baltimore City). Most charter counties have a county council and county executive with the council the lawmakers and the executive the day-to day manager.
Last year the county commissioners voted to hold a series of seven public hearings to explore the idea of Code Home Rule, which is the form of government in six counties, including Charles. The commissioners are expected to make a decision in April whether to put the change in the form of government to the voters on the November ballot.
The fourth of the seven public hearings was held Jan. 19 at the Bay District Volunteer Fire Department (BDVFD) Social Hall. As in the past hearings, several dozen people showed up and there was testimony both pro and con on the issue.
Unlike the previous hearings, at BDVFD a presentation on the three forms of government was made by Maryland Association of Counties m(MACO) Legal Policy Counsel Leslie Knapp, Jr. The organization represents all Maryland counties and thus all three forms of government. Knapp’s Power Point presentation can be viewed here: http://www.boarddocs.com/md/stmarysco/Board.nsf/files/A6ANEE5F8F6E/$file/Presentation%202016-01-19%20St.%20Marys%20County%20Public%20Hearing%5BMACo%5D.pdf
Over the course of the four public hearings there has been much discussion about the deliberative aspect of having the legislature review local proposals versus the expedited process of passing important legislation locally under Code Home Rule. Each version has its supporters and detractors.
One supporter of the deliberative process under the current system is St. Mary’s County Farm Bureau President Jamie Raley, who testified that his organization doesn’t favor a change in government. “We are not convinced of the need for change in the deliberative process that exists now,” he said.
Raley said that the four years in took to get a bill passed to deal with blighted properties is often held out as a reason to support Code Home Rule. But Raley said most of the delay occurred locally and the process allowed for needed changes.
Knapp said that often, but not always, the legislature acts quickly on local bills based on the principal of “local courtesy,” But former commissioner Shelby Guazzo noted that the local commissioners supported a bond bill for a building to replace the courthouse in downtown Leonardtown and the legislature (lead by then Sen. Roy Dyson) killed it — an example of the legislature’s checks and balances.
The man known as the mayor of Lexington Park (because of his long-time civic involvement especially with the fire department), Keith Fairfax, testified in favor of Code Home Rule. He said it would make local government more efficient and give the legislators more time to work on important state-wide issues.
Several others spoke on either side of the issue and a few said they had yet to make up their minds.
More information on Code Home Rule including the final three public hearings can be viewed on the county’s website at: http://www.stmarysmd.com/pio/codehome.asp
More information on the various forms of county governments in Maryland can be found on the MACO website www.mdcounties.org or a legislative handbook from the Maryland General Assembly at http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/Pubs/LegisLegal/2014/legislativehandbookseries-vol-6.pdf