Commisson proposes charter changes in Baltimore County
There are concerns that legislation is being rushed through the Baltimore County Council. A commission that is studying the county charter is expected to recommend that bills before Council have more time for debate. WYPR’s John Lee joins Nathan Sterner to talk about the work of the Charter Review Commission.
Baltimore County’s charter spells out how the government operates. But the county has grown and changed in the nearly 30 years since the document was last reviewed. This year, a commission has been studying it and this morning is expected to finalize its recommendations on changes.
STERNER: John, why is this happening now?
LEE: The voters in 2016 approved a referendum calling for the county charter to get a once-over every 10 years. And when you consider the charter is basically Baltimore County’s constitution, its blueprint for how government works, this is important nuts-and-bolts stuff. So, in February, the county executive and the county Council appointed 11 people to a review commission. It has been going through the charter, line by line, and this morning it should sign off on its recommendations for changes and submit those to the county Council.
STERNER: And what is the commission proposing?
LEE: Perhaps the biggest change is a proposal to extend the life of legislation that is being debated by the county Council. Currently, council has 40 days to act on a bill or it dies. The commission is proposing extending that to 65 days. Former Democratic County Executive Ted Venetoulis is the chairman of the charter commission.
SOUNDBITE VENETOULIS: “The views that we had from folks was, ‘That’s not enough time for the public to look at the bill and offer changes or alternatives.’ So, we extended that.”
LEE: Indeed, citizens complained at hearings and in writing to the commission that legislation was blowing through the county Council before they got wind of it, that amendments were tacked on with little or no notice.
Now, as important as changes the commission is recommending, are issues they decided to leave alone. For instance, members of the county Council say the county executive’s office sometimes stonewalls them when they ask for information. Republican Councilman Wade Kach says he’s asked the public works department for a list of the roads in his district that are in the worst shape and are going to be repaired.
SOUNDBITE KACH: “That particular information has been withheld and they’re refusing to share it with us.”
LEE: Kach wanted the charter changed so the executive branch would be required to give Council members information they request. Some commission members said under the current charter, a county executive can politically punish Council members by withholding information. But the commission decided not to make any kind of change. Commission chairman Venetoulis says requiring the administration to cough up everything Council members ask for could tie up departments and stymie government. Venetoulis says the county executive and Council need to resolve this issue politically, rather than through the charter.
SOUNDBITE VENETOULIS: “Nothing stops the Council from requesting information. Nothing stops the department heads from offering that information.”
LEE: Another thing the commission is deciding not to recommend changing is the size of the County Council. There currently are seven members. Republican Councilman David Marks has advocated moving to a nine-member Council because the county’s population has more than tripled since 1956, when the districts were created. The commission, while proposing no changes, is advising the Council to take another look at the number of Council seats as the county’s population grows.
STERNER: Is the anything the commission found in the charter that needed to be fixed?
LEE: They did: a number of technical and grammatical errors. Also, some things were in the charter that should have been jettisoned long ago. For instance, there is a reference to the county home. That was the county poor house, which closed in the 1950s.
STERNER: So, what happens now?
LEE: The report the commission plans to approve this morning goes to Council. Any changes to the charter need the approval of the Council, then the direct approval of voters in a referendum. So, we have a ways to go before we see any changes to the charter.