The Promise of Charter
It sounded like the salve to our political wounds, a form of government that promised focused vision, cooperation and responsibility. For decades, the process of running a large and complex county by committee, with five people who shared executive and legislative duties, was clunky, confusing and often led to crazy ideological swings every four years (Growth vs. No Growth).
Charter was going to be the solution.
By electing a county executive to run the “business of government,” and separately electing the county council to manage the county’s legislative affairs, we’d finally put the petty disagreements that made a smooth and efficiently functioning government aside.
We’d be able to choose a candidate for county executive based on their vision for the future, and if that vision didn’t actually pan out, we’d be able to express our displeasure during the next election cycle. Unlike the commissioner form, where a group of three could morph depending on the issue at hand, here we’d have clear predictability and accountability in the person of the executive.
Similarly, by electing a mix of council members by districts and at-large, we’d rise above petty parochialism with seven big thinkers, who could place the interests of all county residents above their own back yards.
From the annual budget to the contentious issues surrounding land use decisions, the charter document outlined the various roles and responsibilities. A road map of who would do what, and to whom, the charter was intended to pave the way for a productive and efficiently functioning county government.
Has it worked? It depends.
Certainly, the county executive has established the vision for operation of the government. No doubt her supporters, the people who expressed themselves at the ballot box, are satisfied with the results of her choices. Those choices reflect clearly the promises that she made while seeking the office. Schools and education funding are a priority; she has restored taxpayer’s support of nonprofit human service agencies; and she has tightened ethics and disclosure regulations, making it more difficult for elected and appointed officials to combine their political and professional endeavors.
These were all hot-button issues during Jan Gardner’s 2014 campaign, so no one could claim surprise that she’d move on these topics once elected. The surprise comes from the political alignment of the county council.
Voters seemed to prefer Ms. Gardner’s long term vision, while choosing a counterbalance among the council. Of the seven open council seats, voters chose four low-tax, small government conservative candidates. The three Democrats selected were traditional representatives of their party ideology, in fact all three ran hand-in-hand with Ms. Gardner.
The Republicans, on the other hand, sounded very different. A few of them ran side-by-side with Blaine Young, touting his message of smaller government, anti-tax and pro-business practices. Two of them were serving along with Mr. Young in the outgoing Board of County Commissioners at the time.
So, it really seemed like an interesting mix. A moderate-to-progressive Democrat handed the keys to the daily operation of the government, but a check on her power with a majority of the county council with a much different governing philosophy.
And then reality struck.
Whether by design or serendipity, County Executive Gardner found herself the recipient of a predictable political voting bloc. Serendipity in politics is typically a myth, so it probably happened by design.
The two at-large councilmen, Republicans Bud Otis and Billy Shreve, both aspired to the largely ceremonial position of council president. Mr. Shreve had the allegiance of his other Republican colleagues, Tony Chmelik and Kirby Delauter. Mr. Otis did not.
Bud Otis spent two decades as the whisper adviser to former Congressman Roscoe Bartlett, who was turned out of office by upstart venture capital multi-millionaire John Delaney. Mr. Otis learned a lot at the feet of the 20-year congressman, including how to go about getting what you want when the traditional path forward seems blocked.
So, he did what he needed to do. He made a deal with the other uncommitted votes. In exchange for his support of Democrat M.C. Keegin-Ayer for council vice president, he was able to secure the three other votes needed to become president.
From that moment on, the votes have typically fallen along political lines, with Mr. Otis joining with his Democrat colleagues against the three Republican councilmen. That alignment has helped carry County Executive Gardner’s agenda along fairly smoothly.
In the two-year existence of the county council, there have been 18 bills introduced. Of those, 12 have been adopted. Only four have passed unanimously, the remainder by spilt votes with 1, 2 or 3 members opposing the action. Always the Republicans other than Mr. Otis, interestingly enough.
Only a fool would measure the success of a legislative body or member by how many bills they can pass. The more bills that pass, the more regulation, burden and cost are heaped onto the government and taxpayers by extension.
That said, the former Board of County Commissioners acted on multiple proposals each month, many of those items that would now fall into the category of the purview of the council.
It’s safe to say that the jury, such as it is, is still out on the question of the benefits of charter government.