Cecil County Charter Amendments: Voters OK Four Ballot Questions
Cecil County voters, who overwhelmingly approved a shift to Charter government in 2010, decided by strong margins on Tuesday that they were willing to accept four Charter changes, including some that could shift greater powers to the County Executive in budget deliberations.
While all four Charter amendments won strong support from voters who cast ballots on the questions, there were substantial numbers of voters who simply left those items blank, according to Election Board tallies. Such “undercounts” generally reflect voter uncertainty about the question’s implications so they do not register their viewpoint.
In conversations with voters before and during Election Day, Cecil Times found much confusion on the ballot questions, including some voters who believed they were re-affirming support for Charter government in general if they endorsed the four amendments on the ballot.
Voters approved this question by a tally of 88 percent, while 11.9 percent voted no. On Question A, voters were asked to give the County Executive an extra month to prepare her budget, submitting it to the County Council by April 1 each year instead of the current March 1. County Executive Tari Moore said she sought the extra time as a more efficient way to produce a budget– especially when Annapolis goes down to the legislative wire in early April with state spending decisions, and possible new mandates to be dumped on the counties.
But the net effect of the proposed change would be to cut the time given to the County Council and citizens to review the executive’s budget proposal.
The Charter already establishes a strong County Executive form of government with a relatively weak County Council. Virtually the only power the Council has is to reduce the Executive’s spending proposals. But the Council, unlike the Executive, must hold public hearings for citizens, budget hearings with department heads on individual agency’s spending requests, and schedule formal legislative sessions as well as workshops before finally voting on a new budget.
Voters gave this question the smallest margin of support of the four questions on the ballot, voting yes with 62.1 percent, while 37.8 percent voted no. Ironically, if this question had been defeated while Question A was approved, citizens and the County Council would have lost a whole month from the time they have to review the budget proposed by the executive. But with the approval of Question B, citizens and the County Council will have only two weeks less time to review the executive’s budget.
Question B also includes a Charter change to make the County Executive’s budget proposal go into effect automatically if the County Council had not adopted its own version of the budget by June 15 each year.
Question B sets up a virtual political hammer, threatening that if the Council members cannot do their jobs and come to an agreement on a budget, the County Executive gets her way completely.
Setting a deadline for action that has real teeth also guards against the potential local equivalent of a government shutdown—all too reminiscent of federal gridlock in Washington—under which there could be inadequate local funds to pay for essential services such as law enforcement.
Voters approved Question C with 83 percent supporting the change while 16.9 percent voted no.
Question C asked voters to approve a Charter change to allow budget amendments submitted by the County Executive to be approved by a simple majority vote of the County Council, which may if it chooses hold a public hearing before acting on the budget item. Now, the Council has to go through a lengthy full-blown legislative process, including a required public hearing, even on rather modest changes in the budget—including accounting for grants received from state or federal officials.
This Charter change was proposed as a more efficient way to handle routine shifts within the budget and accounting for state and federal grants that are issued at various times during the fiscal year.
Voters supported Question D by a tally of 82.7 percent voting yes while 17.2 percent voted no.
Question D asked voters to reduce the level of what amounts to insurance covering the county’s top fiscal officers—the County Executive and the Director of Finance—in the handling of taxpayer funds. The original Charter set a proportionate requirement for the insurance/bond equal to at least 2 percent of the county’s budget, while Question D proposed a fixed amount that “equals or exceeds $500,000.”
The purpose of the change, according to the county administration, is to save money on the premium costs of the insurance bond.
But with a $178 million operating budget in the current fiscal year, a $500,000 insurance policy could leave taxpayers vulnerable if there are financial losses above the $500,000 insurance policy.