The Harford County Charter Review Board, established on July 12 with the goal of cleaning up and modernizing the Charter, issued its final report last week and has recommended several substantial changes – including term limits for the council president and members, a new procedure to ensure fair political participation on future redistricting commissions, and a proposal to halve the number of newspapers in which the county must provide public notice.
The Board met monthly from August 2011 through February 2012, conducted a thorough review of the Harford County Charter, and ultimately came up with a list of ten recommended changes.
“Since the first meeting of the Board in August, the Board met seven additional times. We completed a comprehensive review of each section of the Charter and supporting documents to ensure that the Charter remains current to meet the demands and needs of the Harford County community, even during rapidly changing times. The Board hereby submits the attached recommendations for review and consideration. These recommendations represent compromises among the members, and thoughtful changes that should be made to keep the Charter current,” worte Maurice Baldwin, chair of the Charter Review Board, in his letter to County Executive David Craig and Council President Billy Boniface.
In all, ten significant recommendations were presented by the Charter Review Board. In brief, they include:
American Institute of Planners – Changing a portion which currently provides that the Director of Planning and Zoning shall be eligible for membership in the American Institute of Planners. The Board reviewed this provision and found that the original organization specified in the Charter as of 1973 does not currently exist. The Board recommends the Director “shall be a member of, or eligible for membership in, a nationally recognized association for planning professionals.”
Housing Element and Agricultural Element Plans – Adding those elements to the Master Plan due to changes in the demographics of the county inventory for available building lots and housing types, as well as a lack of continuation of the Rural Plan as an element of the Land Use Plan and due to the overall agricultural resources in the county.
Corporate Shareholder – Clarifying specific references to shareholders of a corporation and persons or entities having legal, equitable or beneficial interest.
County Auditor – Changes to ensure the duties and procedures for the external auditor would be separated from the internal county auditor.
Compensation for County Executive and Council – Removing specific salary amounts from the Charter, which have become outdated over the years and could be misleading. Compensation levels are changed by law passed by the council, and do not follow the amounts listed in the Charter.
County Council Term Limits – The Board recommends a limit of two consecutive terms for members of the county council due to the fact that term limits are consistent with the understanding that council members are intended to be part-time citizen legislators and the fact that the Office of the County Executive has a two consecutive term limit. This would apply to the Council President as well.
County Council Vacancies – Clarifying the Charter regarding replacement of council members. Ensuring that that if a council member changes party affiliation after being elected, a replacement for that member would be selected by the same party that the voters originally chose. Also, references to “Central Committee” were recommended to be changed to “governing body” to allow for the possibility of a council member being a member of a third party.
County Executive Vacancy – Changing the Charter to provide that a vacancy of the Office of the County Executive be filled in the same manner as the vacancy would be filled for a council member – an appointed successor to be from the same political party as the former County Executive, and provides for election to fill the remainder of the term if the vacancy occurs early in the term.
Public Notice – Recommendation to modernize public notice requirements to include publication on a county website and reducing the required publication in newspapers from two newspapers to just one.
Redistricting – Every ten years a commission is formed to prepare a plan for redrawing County Council districts after the new U.S. Census. The Charter currently provides two seats on the commission for each political party that polled at least 15% of the total vote cast for all candidates for the Council in the preceding election. In 2011, the Charter language resulted in a commission with members from only one party (the other major party did not achieve 15% of the total vote because it did not have a candidate for the county-wide office of Council President). To guarantee that the membership of future redistricting commissions will include broad representation, the Board recommends an amendment that will entitle a political party to two members on the commission on redistricting if the party either polled at least 15% of the votes at the previous election for County Council or had at least 15% of the registered voters at the time of that election. The amendment also includes a provision requested by the Harford County League of Women Voters by requiring that the additional member appointed to the commission be a Harford County registered voter who is an independent or a member of a political party not already represented on the commission.
Other recommendations which were considered by the Charter Review Board, but ultimately rejected by a majority vote, included eliminating the two-year waiting period before a council member could take a paid position with the County and changing the current process of having the County Council sit as the Board of Appeals in zoning cases.
Beyond the ten listed recommendations, the Charter Review Board also recommended “additional considerations,” which could be made without amendment to the Charter. These include providing the public the opportunity to comment on proposed amendments by posting the amendments on the council website; providing greater availability of public documents, including the Charter, on the county’s website in a downloadable format; and including an easily identifiable revision date of the Charter with all copies to allow citizens to know that they have the most recent version of the Charter.
The full text of the Harford County Charter Review Board’s letter and report are below: