WASHINGTON – St. Mary’s County commissioners easily defeated the most radical proposed county government overhaul Tuesday, but subsequently voted to consider a less sweeping change that would give them some legislative authority.
Commissioners voted 4-0 with the president not voting to dump talk of converting St. Mary’s County government to a charter. Commissioners then directed county staff 3-2 to schedule at least four hearings on the code form of government to gauge public support.
Unlike the charter form of government that separates the legislative and executive powers like the federal government, a code form would keep St. Mary’s commissioner government intact and transfer some legislative authority from the General Assembly to the county.
Now the county’s laws must be approved by the General Assembly.
It was Commissioner Daniel Raley’s idea to look into a government change out of concern for the current government’s ability to continue to handle the county’s burgeoning growth.
The commissioners appointed a community task force in March to study the matter and in August it recommended a switch to a charter form with a county executive to manage daily operations.
St. Mary’s College of Maryland invited task-force chief Patrick Murphy and former Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan to discuss the recommendation at a public forum in September.
But the low attendance by the county’s citizens was seen by some as an indication of little public understanding and lack of public support for changing their government.
That concern was echoed at Tuesday’s meeting.
“The whole process was not vetted enough,” said Commissioner Thomas Mattingly. The public hearings “should have happened before with charter. It should have been done for the whole process.”
Commissioners Raley, Mattingly and Francis Russell then voted to hang on to the code form idea and assess its reception with public hearings, expected to begin soon and extend into March.
But holding hearings is not a guarantee that the commissioners will send code government to voters on the next general election ballot, in 2010, as required, according to the task force.
“I’m still not sold on code (form),” Mattingly said. “If we don’t receive significant support in the public hearings, we reserve the right not to vote for it.”
Whatever happens, the task force’s work was not a waste of time, Raley said.
“It was a good process. From time to time, we need to step back and evaluate,” he said. “They were a diverse and committed group and were swayed by some of the testimony they heard.”
Ultimately, Raley said, “The public doesn’t buy into the fact that charter (form) will not be costly, bureaucratic or a better representation.”
Four commissioners voted against moving forward with a charter form. Russell, the board president, did not vote because it was not necessary, he later said.
But Russell sees advantages in the code form.
“It allows the commissioners to have more stuff passed without going to the (state) legislature,” he said after the board meeting. But he said he’ll consult lawyers and attend all hearings before deciding.
Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe, one of the two who voted against holding more hearings, said he would only attend nearby hearings, but he would be cautious about public support.
“It depends on where the public support is coming from,” Jarboe said after the board meeting. He would be weary if too many “developers who want to subdivide the land in greater volume” came to the hearings.
It will take at least four commissioners to approve a code form proposal for the ballot.