Leonardtown, MD – St. Mary’s County voters will get a chance in the Nov. 8 General Election to decide whether to change the form of county government. For its entire existence, St. Mary’s County has been a commission form of government. The question on the ballot is whether to switch to ‘Code Home Rule.’
State law allows the 24 jurisdictions (23 counties and Baltimore City) to have one of three forms of local government: commission, charter and code home rule. Six counties have a commission government, including St. Mary’s and Calvert and six have Code Home Rule, including Charles County. The remaining 12 have charter government.
County voters on two previous occasions have rejected charter government. This will be their first time deciding on Code Home Rule, which is viewed as a middle ground between commission and charter. Charter government, which involves a bigger bureaucracy, includes a full-time county executive running the day-to-day operations and commissioners sitting as legislators. The voters, among other reasons, deemed the change to be too expensive for St. Mary’s.
What’s the difference between commission and charter? Under the existing commission government, the five Commissioners of St. Mary’s County can act in areas in which they have been given authority by the Maryland General Assembly. Everything else must go through the legislature.
Under Code Home Rule, the county commissioners operate as they currently do, except periodically they sit as a legislative body and can enact certain laws that now require approval of the Maryland General Assembly. County Attorney George Sparling has assured the commissioners that Code Home Rule will have no fiscal impact.
Under Code Home Rule, one commissioner can introduce legislation and the remaining commissioners can veto it outright. If there aren’t enough votes, then the proposed legislation goes to a local public hearing and a final decision by the commissioners. Decisions can be petitioned to referendum.
During a series of eight public hearings spanning over almost a year, the alleged pros and cons were aired. Although some of the hearings were sparsely attended, the testimony was consistent:
• Supporters – cited the existing need for a strictly local issue to be voted on by legislators from all over the state, including highly urbanized areas. They point out the potentially lengthy process for time-sensitive issues. They cite the need to trek to Annapolis to testify and the lack of local referendum authority. In short the speakers felt the best legislation is that which is done close to home.
• Opponents – point out that the commission form of government has worked well over the history of the county and there is no compelling argument for change. There was a feeling often expressed that the checks and balances applied to local legislation by the county legislative delegation and ultimately the full legislature are a good thing. It was said that deliberation instead of haste is often preferable.
Commissioner tom Jarboe (R-1st District) consistently noted that it took a year and a half to get legislative approval for authority for the county to remove abandoned buildings.
Former Del. Ernie Bell reminded everyone at one of the public hearings that the then-county commissioners wanted to move the courthouse out of downtown Leonardtown against public wishes and the legislators intervened and saved it.
The way the process works now, a meeting is held between the commissioners and the county’s legislators sometime before the legislature convenes in Jan. At the meeting the individual commissioners present their legislative wish list, departments (such as the liquor board) do the same and the public can offer suggestions as well.
The commissioners then vote, and present the tallies to the legislators, who then decide whether to introduce legislation as a group.
This year’s meeting will be Dec. 6. But if Code Home Rule passes the number of bills to be presented could be drastically lower.
That Dec. legislative meeting was highlighted during a Nov. 1 joint meeting between the Commissioners of St. Mary’s County and the Metropolitan Commission (MetCom). The discussion about the governance of MetCom could be considered a poster child of the Code Home Rule issue.
Chapter 113 of the Code of Public Local Laws for St. Mary’s County covers the Metropolitan Commission. Currently any change to that law must be approved by the Maryland General Assembly. Under Code Home Rule the commissioners will receive broad authority over MetCom that they now do not have. That could include bringing MetCom into county government as a separate department instead of its current quasi-independent status.
Attorney Sparling presented for the commissioners what he called talking points involving changes to Chapter 133. One of those propose changes, giving the county commissioners approval authority over MetCom’s operating budget, did not sit well with several MetCom members.
Sparling explained that the commissioners did have approval authority over the operating budget until four years ago and now have authority over MetCom’s capital budget. But former MetCom chairman Steve Willing said the board members bore into the operating budget on a regular basis. Willing used as an example the large amount of time MetCom devoted to scrutinizing the purchase of a $20,000 car for their safety officer.
Commissioner John O’Connor (R-3rd Dist.) charged that spending so much time on such a small item was micromanagement, which he said the commissioners don’t do to their staff. MetCom member John Carey responded by saying that the car’s cost would be significant over its lifetime and the oversight was valuable.
MetCom Vice Chairman Bob Russell noted that they review operating budget change orders regularly and wondered if all those changes would have to be approved by the commissioners. Carey asked what problem was being addressed by the proposed change.
Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R-2nd District) criticized MetCom for accumulating too much debt, causing exorbitant increases in fees charged for businesses.
The MetCom board has also been considering charges to Article 113. Jarboe urged both MetCom and the commissioners to try to come up with an agreement on what to present to the legislative delegation. MetCom Chairman Bryan “Puff” Barthelme said that probably would require a special MetCom meeting.
Other proposed charges to Chapter 113 include giving the commissioners the authority to remove MetCom members. They know only appoint the members.
One issue not on the table now is bringing MetCom under county government, which has been suggested by several of the commissioners. Commissioner Todd Morgan (R-4th Dist.) and President Randy Guy (R) were adamant at the joint meeting that they opposed any move in that direction. Such a decision probably could also be accomplished by the commissioners under Code Home Rule.
Code Home Rule could change the MetCom discussion and discussions about other issues in St, Mary’s County. If it passes the legislators will be removed from the decision-making process, putting the decision in the laps of the county commissioners. The voters must decide whether that is a good thing or not.
Contact Dick Myers at email@example.com