Charter Amendments make for a grueling Wicomico ballot

 

Stepping into the voting booth on Tuesday might feel like returning to school to take an exam. Wicomico voters will be called upon to fill in 15 little answer ovals.

And while voters will probably have firmly decided how to fill in the first oval — selecting the next U.S. president — when they wade into a series of 11 referendum questions, it will probably be helpful if they studied in advance.

Voters will select a president to succeed Barack Obama; pick a new U.S. senator to succeed Barbara Mikulski; choose from among three U.S. House of Representatives challengers, including incumbent Andy Harris; decide whether to retain a judge they’ve probably never heard of (Dan Friedman) on the state’s Court of Special Appeals; and settle an appointments dispute between Statehouse Democrats and Gov. Larry Hogan.

And that’s just the easy stuff.

Then they’ll vote on an issue years in the offing (how to choose Wicomico County’s school board) and then rule on nine proposed changes to the County Charter.

These charter amendments are both complicated and tricky. Making an informed decision requires some homework, background, context and political insight.

It’s also a rare opportunity to tell county leaders how the government should be constructed.

The charter changes have revealed some sharp divisions in the county’s executive and legislative branches. County Executive Bob Culver, for his part, has called on voters to reject all of the amendments. Meanwhile, the County Council, which unanimously approved their inclusion on the ballot, is making no apologies for bringing in the voters to help decide the innerworkings of county administration.

Culver sees the measures as an attempt to undermine his authority — and old-fashioned political power grab. The council counters that it is merely taking the steps required to ensure checks and balances in county government.

While both sides are probably correct in their interpretation of means and motives, calling upon the voters to sort out the details is venturing into some new territory, untrod since the enactment of the County Executive form of government 10 years ago.

Here’s how the Charter Amendments appear on the ballot and a review of what’s behind them:

Question B

County Council Vacancy — Special Election

To amend the County Charter to require a special election to fill a County Council vacancy if an appointment to fill a vacancy in the Council is made more than 30 days before the filing deadline for President of the United States. The person to fill the vacancy shall serve until the first Tuesday in December following the general election for the President of the United States.

This is considered a housekeeping measure that’s been discussed before. Council vacancies would still be filled by the County Council, based on recommendations from the appropriate party Central Committees. County offices are filled in state gubernatorial election years. The charter would allow vacancy appointees to sit until the next available election, or the next U.S. presidential election.

Question C

Submission of Appointments for Confirmation

To amend the County Charter to extend the time for the Council to act to confirm or reject any appointment by the County Executive of the Director of Administration, the head of a department in the executive branch, or a member of a board or commission from 30 days to 45 days from the submission and to require the submission at a legislative session of Council.

This amendment can be traced to department leadership appointments that occurred when Culver first entered office in December 2014. Because of weather problems that delayed council sessions and other factors, the nominee’s appointment as Parks, Recreation & Tourism director was delayed and finally scrubbed.  

Question D

County Executive Vacancy — Special Election

To amend the County Charter to require a special election for the County Executive if a vacancy occurs within the first 12 months of a term and providing for an interim appointee before the special election. If a vacancy occurs after the first 12 months of a term, then the County Council is authorized to permanently fill the vacancy by a majority vote within 45 days after the vacancy occurred. The current Charter requires the Council to fill a County Executive vacancy by resolution within 30 days.

Another housekeeping measure. If a County Executive dies or leaves office, the Director of Administration will assume the duties until the council can appoint a replacement of the same political party. If that occurs within the first year of an executive’s term, an election will be held at the next opportunity (again in a presidential election year).

If the vacancy occurs later in the term, the council’s appointee will remain until the end of the four-year term.

Question E

Temporary Absence of Disability of the County Executive

To amend the County Charter to direct the the Director of Administration shall perform the duties of the County Executive in the event of a temporary absence or disability of the County Executive. This amendment would remove the County Executive’s option to designate in writing some other person in the executive branch to perform the duties of County Executive in the event of a temporary absence or disability of the County Executive.

When the County Executive system was implemented, the idea that the executive could name a temporary replacement — all on his own — was seen as unusual. That has lingered, and now the County Council wants the Director of Administration to serve as the automatic fill-in, rather than the County Executive naming a temporary stand-in. It has been interpreted as eroding the executive’s authority.

Question F

Temporary Administrative Appointments

To amend the County Charter to limit the term of an appointment as an “Acting Director of Administration” or any “Acting” head of a department to a period of 90 days. The current charter limits the temporary appointment by the County Executive of an “Acting Director of Administration” or an acting head of a department only if the person does not possess all the qualifications of office as required by the charter.

Two recent historical precedents appear to be are at play here. During then-County Executive Rick Pollitt’s administration, the county’s deputy Public Works Director served on an extended acting-director basis, reportedly because he neither wanted the top job or the political instability that might go with it.

It’s the saga over the county’s legal representation that is at the heart of this Charter Amendment.

After taking office, Culver — in what he has insisted to be a cost savings action — essentially disbanded the County Law Department. The department exists under the charter, and Culver had made a campaign issue out of the department’s hefty staffing and expenses.

Culver hired his own attorney on a contract/retainer. Throughout the process, County Council members appeared more than a bit miffed by the executive’s actions, quizzing him closely but remaining detached..

As lawyers from the Department of Law eventually departed, the council decided to hire its own attorney on a paid-by-the-hour basis — and ironically chose the lawyer who formerly headed the Law Department.

Culver makes clear his way saves money; the council insists the county should have coordinated legal representation.

Question G

Reorganization Defined

To amend the County Charter to provide that a reorganization includes any change of the function, responsibilities, or powers of any part of the Executive Branch or a management-initiated rearrangement of reporting relationships, including terms of financial compensation, of multiple positions within or between executive departments, offices, agencies.

Question G is an extension of the conflict as reflected in the explanation of Question F..

A certainly confusing amendment, Question G goes to reorganization within the executive branch — reorganization such as the Law Department story.

Council members insist they have an obligation to police how a County Executive sets up the established offices. Seeing the Law Department changes a major reorganization, the council wants what it considers appropriate input.

Of all the amendments, Culver and his staff seem most irritated over Question G. As Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg observed: “It is political. It’s an outgrowth of Bob being linked to a contract person for County Attorney. It is so vague, it opens itself to multiple interpretations.”

Question H

Department of Law

To amend the County Charter to change the role of the County Attorney in the representation of the County Council and the council’s right to employ counsel. The current Charter requires that the County Attorney be the legal advisor of the Council and the charter amendment modifies this requirement.

A further extension of the legal counsel debate, this put in writing the council’s ability to have its own attorney (which it has already done).

Culver’s opposition to this amendment is straight-forward, as it would allow the council to pick his attorney as well as their own.

Question I

Personnel System

To amend the County Charter to authorize the County Council to establish by Law a Personnel System, and to provide that the County Executive may propose changes or revisions for adoption by the Council.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the County Executive’s power is the amendment regarding county personnel. Both Culver and Strausburg adamantly oppose the council’s need to craft personnel policies.

The genesis for Question I is recent complaints raised by retired county employees, unhappy with alterations to their health care plans. The former workers have complained openly to the executive and council.

Culver sees the amendment as a transfer of power; the council sees it as an accountability issue in which the public and employees are counting on their involvement. It would also allow the council to suggest personnel policies (which Culver hotly opposes), but the executive’s possible remedy would be to veto the legislative branch’s submissions.

Question J

Expense Budget

To amend the County Charter to provide that in the event the County Council and County Executive do not agree upon the expenditure of a surplus resulting from the Council’s decreasing or deleting budget items, the surplus will be placed in the Undesignated Fund balance.

When reading it, the amendment that calls for money that’s cut by the council, during the budget process, to be placed back into the pot for the following year, seems like a huge measure. Both sides say it isn’t — but they do so from different vantage points.

Culver & Co. call Question J “a needless charter amendment,” and they’re not out of bounds to suggest that.

The council counters that the amendment is needed to head off future problems by placing into code the arrangements that have worked for the past decade.

Culver maintains that the amendment could ultimately prevent the executive — as well as his council colleagues — from engaging in budget negotiation during the spending review process, thereby hurting the abilities of all sides to direct funding for desired initiatives.

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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