The charter board for the Charles County government convened on June 22nd, 2023, for a charter meeting to review and discuss important aspects of the county’s charter. The meeting, which commenced at 6:10 PM, began with a roll call conducted by Miss Jessie Banga. The attendance included Cheryl Botts, Sarah Hammett, Marjorie Chiles, Mary Stokely, Ramonda Davis, Christopher Harrington, Eileen Lynch-Britt, Gregory Warring,  Dottery Butler-Washington, William Smith, Michael White, and James Crawford.

The board commenced the meeting by acknowledging the receipt of the minutes from the previous meeting held on June 8th, 2023, which were distributed via email. These minutes were scheduled to be reviewed later in the meeting.

One of the key recommendations made by the board was to encourage all members to take the Open Meetings Act course. Links to the course and an overview were provided to facilitate the process.

The meeting proceeded with instructions on how to navigate ILegislate, the new platform for housing agendas. The board members were provided with comprehensive guidelines on utilizing the platform effectively.

During the course of the meeting, the board also deliberated on the locations for public hearings. While the suggestions for most districts were discussed, the location for District 4 was yet to be determined. The board welcomed suggestions for potential locations in District 4 from the attendees.

A vital agenda item involved the election of officers. Greg Warring was nominated as chair, and Dottery Butler-Washington was nominated as vice chair. Both nominations received seconding and were subsequently approved.

The format for public comments was extensively discussed, and it was decided to allocate the last 30 minutes of each meeting for public comments. A statement would be read, allowing speakers a maximum of three minutes each. Additionally, a suggestion was made to engage with the public in informal conversations following the meeting.

The proposed public comment statement was slated for review either later in the meeting or at the next gathering.

As the meeting drew to a close, the minutes and public comment approval were scheduled for review. The issue of engaging with constituents after the meeting was raised, and it was suggested to have informal conversations and continue receiving feedback.

One of the notable suggestions was to divide future meetings by article or theme and invite guest speakers, similar to the approach adopted by the 2013/2014 board. The importance of addressing complex or sensitive topics upfront was emphasized, and the draft from 2014 was considered as a comparative presentation.

The board members agreed to work on the charter section by section instead of gathering extensive information simultaneously. The timeline for public hearings was also discussed, with the first hearing scheduled for December. The input from stakeholders and affected organizations was deemed crucial in this process.

To better understand the complexity of the charter, the suggestion was made to walk through the 2014 document and determine the approach for addressing each section. The focus would be on important topics such as the executive sheriff, first responders, and organizing the discussion. If sections were straightforward and had consistent language, they could be skipped. Voting would not be required for every decision, and a conversational tone could be maintained. The order of speakers could also be changed as deemed appropriate.

A thorough review of the charter revealed that it does not mention a police chief versus a sheriff retaining all police power. Consequently, the existing system in Charles County, where the elected sheriff remains in office, and the volunteer and paid EMS systems operate, would continue under the charter. Any changes to this system would necessitate a referendum and a vote by the residents.

Article 4, Section 4.13 of the charter addressed appointing and removing department heads and other county operating agencies. The language in this section was found to be broad, allowing for the establishment and staffing of various county departments, including the police department, HR department, and finance department. Notably, the council does not possess the power to approve or confirm these appointments.

The composition of the county council was outlined in the charter, dividing it into three districts. Within each district, two elected council members are nominated and elected by the voters of the entire county. Candidates for the council must meet specific qualifications, including being a U.S. citizen, a registered voter in Charles County, and a resident of the county or district for a specified period.

The charter also delved into various aspects of the county council, such as qualifications, terms of office, vacancies, and removal procedures for council members. Council members are limited to three consecutive four-year terms and cannot hold any other elected public office except for positions created by the Maryland Constitution or state laws. Compensation is provided to council members, and any vacancies that arise are filled through either an election or an appointment process outlined in the charter. The election of council officers, including the president and vice president, is also addressed.

Regarding the council’s responsibilities, the charter grants them the authority to enact public local laws for the county, as well as repeal or amend existing laws. The council also has the power to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses, and require the production of evidence. While the executive branch is responsible for providing requested legislation and program review information, the council can appoint administrative employees and seek advice from legal, financial, or other advisors.

The charter also covers essential areas such as redistricting, specifying establishing a redistricting commission after each decennial census. It delineates legislative and non-legislative sessions, limiting the number of days for enacting legislation. The council must maintain a journal of formal actions, which should be open to public inspection. Voting on legislation is done through roll call, and the council can establish additional rules for legislative procedures. Bills introduced during legislative sessions must have a single subject described in their titles.

The process for enacting, revising, or amending laws is clearly outlined in the charter. A bill must be introduced during a legislative session and include the names of the council members introducing it. The council can either reject a bill or schedule a public hearing for further discussion. Public notice and publication requirements must be met for these public hearings. An amended bill must satisfy the same notice and publication requirements as a newly introduced bill. Failure to enact a bill within a specified timeframe renders it void. The executive holds the power to approve or veto legislation, with the council having the ability to override a veto through a supermajority vote. Laws, as well as the annual budget and appropriations ordinance, become effective on specific dates. Certain laws may be referred to the voters for approval through a petition process.

While emergency legislation is not explicitly addressed in the charter, its absence was not considered a significant omission. Overall, the charter was deemed workable and free of any major oversights.

The importance of reviewing charters from other counties, such as Harford and Frederick, was stressed throughout the meeting. This comparative analysis aimed to identify language and provisions that could be incorporated into the Charles County charter. The board emphasized breaking down the charter review process by addressing key questions and themes, including the county executive, council structure, compensation, and more. To gain insights from other jurisdictions, guest speakers from Frederick, Harford, and the Maryland Municipal League were proposed to be invited.

In summary, the charter board’s meeting was productive and focused on discussing crucial topics related to the charter review process. The board members committed to engaging in open and honest conversations during future sessions and collectively working on drafting the charter based on agreed-upon themes.

During the meeting, the board also highlighted the need to establish a plan and prioritize key topics for upcoming discussions. The county executive and council structure were identified as important areas of focus. To gain further insights, the suggestion was to invite guest speakers from Frederick and Harford counties, who could share their experiences with county executives. The board emphasized the importance of gathering public input and considering the redistricting process. Adjustments to the timeline were also discussed to ensure sufficient time for redistricting and public engagement.

In addition, the board members emphasized the significance of reviewing all charters, including those of Harford and Frederick counties, before the next meeting. They were encouraged to come prepared with their thoughts and opinions.

The discussion also highlighted the need to establish a timeline for completing the charter. Redistricting and the implementation process were identified as crucial factors to consider. The suggestion of inviting speakers from Frederick, Harford, and the Maryland Municipal League was made to gain valuable insights from other jurisdictions. Hot-button issues like taxation, oversight, and compliance were suggested as subjects to address. The board recommended resources such as the guide for charter government by the National Civic League for further reading and reference.

To accommodate guest speakers’ schedules, the possibility of conducting virtual meetings was discussed. The board proposed creating a questionnaire for senators and delegates to gather their perspectives on the challenges posed by the current government structure and how a charter could address them. One guest speaker per meeting was suggested to ensure ample time for other board activities.

The board unanimously agreed to prioritize topics such as oversight, investigations, and removal from office. To gather diverse perspectives, speakers from various organizations, including the Maryland Municipal League, Sheriff Berry, and the Charles County Fire and EMS associations, were considered for future meetings. The board also discussed the importance of presenting core elements of the charter to the public for feedback.

Regarding the next steps, the board assigned tasks for the upcoming meeting. These tasks include reading the charters, preparing a draft questionnaire for guest speakers, and writing letters to the delegation and Senator Ellis. The main topic for the next meeting will revolve around the executive branch, and it will be decided whether to continue the discussion or move on to the next topic. The issue of drafting the charter will be addressed internally, and additional resources may be sought if needed. The proposed charter agenda received a motion for approval, and minor edits were suggested for the statement on public comment.

Lastly, the board discussed various ideas to enhance public awareness and engagement with the charter. Suggestions included creating a dedicated landing page on the government website for charter information and resources, incorporating FAQs and the 2014 charter. While the idea of a commercial was mentioned, it was clarified that advertising before the charter is delivered may not be appropriate. The possibility of allowing public comments through an online platform was also explored.

The meeting concluded with the approval of minutes, minor corrections, and a motion to adjourn the meeting.

Overall, the charter board meeting was characterized by constructive discussions, strategic planning, and a commitment to involving the public in the charter review process. The board members displayed enthusiasm and a collective dedication to shaping the future of Charles County through a well-considered and comprehensive charter.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...

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