Charter Government: Cecil County Commissioners Confused But Looking for Advice

January 25, 2011

Cecil County voters overwhelmingly approved a switch to charter government in last November’s election, but the county’s leaders are still learning a lot, and questions abound, on what the shift will mean to the county’s governance. So the County Commissioners indicated Tuesday they will appoint a transition team to help them figure it all out.

Cecil County voters approved a ballot question endorsing a change from the limited powers of a County Commissioners form of government to a home-rule Charter government, with a County Executive and a five-member County Council. A Cecil Times review of election returns by precincts shows that all but one precinct overwhelmingly supported charter government. Only Precinct 9 (Calvert Elementary polling place, in Rising Sun) opposed charter, by a margin of just 19 votes. Countywide, the shift to charter government was approved by voters, 15,142 to 10,755.

The shift to charter government occurs after the 2012 election, when a County Executive will be elected and the board of commissioners will become a County Council. But there are many grey areas dealing with how the county will transition to the new system.

That was evident at Tuesday’s County Commissioners’’ work session, when there was confusion over whether the new county executive had the sole power to fire and/or hire a “Director of Administration,” a position currently titled county administrator.

Chris Ann Szep, a member of the citizen panel that drafted the charter government proposal, briefed the commissioners on transition issues and initially said that both appointment and “termination” of the Director of Administration by the County Executive would have to be approved by the County Council.

But Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5th Dist.) questioned that view, saying, ‘My reading of the Charter is that they can be fired” by the county executive alone. After consultation with the charter document and county attorney Norman Wilson, it was disclosed that termination of the Director of Administration was solely at the will of the County Executive– but that appointment of a person to take over that position, and appointments of county department heads, would have to be approved by the new County Council.

The current county administrator is Al Wein, who is widely respected and has survived in that position for many years, regardless of the political composition of the county commissioners’ board. Wein has demonstrated encyclopedic knowledge of state and county laws, programs and procedures and the county commissioners have often deferred to his non-partisan expertise on issues when they were in doubt or confused.

In a letter to the county commissioners Tuesday, Joyce Bowlsbey, the chairperson of the charter board that drafted the successful plan approved by voters, asked the current county commissioners to appoint a “transition team” of citizens and county officials to work together to “oversee the transfer” of government duties and “help resolve any issues that may arise.” She recommended that the county appoint a panel consisting of Wein, the county administrator; William Feehley, the newly-elected county Treasurer; Wilson, the county attorney; county department heads, as selected by the county commissioners; and five members of the charter government advisory panel.

The commissioners indicated that they would support creation of a transition team to guide them on the shift to charter government. Hodge said he would “fully support” a transition team so as to “avoid litigation” or other problems. The commissioners asked for more information from the previous charter panel on areas of law and procedure that a transition group should consider.

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