The Cecil County Charter Board reversed course Monday night, voting to propose a charter form of government in which County Council members would be elected at-large by all voters in the county. The Board had previously proposed election of council members only by residents of their own district.
The Charter Board voted 6-2 to revise the proposed charter, which has been the subject of multiple public hearings throughout the county for months. Barry Montgomery and Robert Gell voted against the change to at-large election of all council members.
The Charter Board was appointed by the County Commissioners last year and tasked with producing a proposal to change the form of local government in Cecil County from the current five-member Board of Commissioners to a charter form of government with a County Executive and a County Council. Charter government counties have more local powers than the Commissioner form of government, which requires state General Assembly authorization of most major decisions.
The Charter Board will present its charter proposal to the county Commissioners July 19 but the Commissioners have no power to make any changes in the document, which will be submitted to voters in a referendum on the November ballot, according to Joyce Bowlsbey, chair of the Charter Board.
The about-face by the panel on Monday reflected growing concerns that such a significant shift in the way that citizens elect their county representatives could sink the entire charter effort. Dan Schneckenburger, vice chair of the panel, said that even supporters of a charter form of government had strong concerns about district-only elections.
County Commissioners are currently elected at-large and that requires all commissioners to campaign throughout the county and listen to citizens’ concerns even if they live outside the Commissioner’s district. But supporters of district-only elections say that some parts of the county, such as the largely rural south county, have unique concerns and issues that are ignored in favor of the more urban areas under the current system once an election is over.
County Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) urged the Charter Board to change the proposal to provide at-large election of council members, saying, “I want the best people” to run for the council, and district-only election would lead to partisanship and “parochial attitudes.” He said that the current 1st, 2nd and 4th Commissioner districts are largely Democratic in registration and would probably support Democrats. “That’s bad,” Hodge said. “I’m afraid a commissioner would only be looking out for his own back yard” rather than the best interest of the whole county.
The current Board of Commissioners has three Republican seats– the 1st, 2nd and 5th. However, the 2nd District seat is up for election this year. Republican Rebecca Demmler is not seeking re-election. A candidate for the GOP nomination for the 2nd District seat, Tari Moore, attended the Charter Board meeting and agreed with Hodge that at-large election of County Council members was best for the county. “It would be a lot easier, and cheaper, to have to run only from one district,” she said. “But it’s not good government.”
The charter proposal would cut the pay of county commissioners and strip them of health and other benefits if a shift to charter government is approved by voters. But charter would add an elected, full-time County Executive, to be paid “not less than” $98,000 a year, plus full benefits.
Cecil County voters have repeatedly rejected charter government in the past and have also voted down Code Home Rule, a less drastic revision in the form of government. Code Home Rule retains the commissioner system, without a county executive, and provides many of the same powers as charter, and in some cases grants more autonomy from second-guessing by Annapolis than charter government.
The push for charter this year reflects growing dissatisfaction in Elkton with efforts by some members of the state legislative delegation to micro-manage the county government. In particular, Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-36) and Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36) sponsored legislation to limit Cecil County Commissioners’ authority on property tax levels and labor relations, prompting the Commissioners to hire a lobbyist and successfully defeat the legislators’ efforts. But Pipkin and Smigiel’s battles with the Commissioners go back many years, before the current board, and they were also defeated on other issues.
Supporters of charter government have formed a political committee with a website, www.friendsofcharter.com and are expected to campaign for voter support in the referendum. Pipkin and Smigiel and their allies are expected to oppose charter, which would diminish their power to control the county government from Annapolis.
However, with just a few weeks left before the election filing deadline, Pipkin has not yet filed for re-election to his Senate seat and is said to be considering a statewide run for Comptroller. Smigiel has not yet filed for re-election as a delegate. Del. Richard Sossi, R-36, has filed for re-election but has told The Cecil Times he would run for the Senate seat if Pipkin vacates it.