Wicomico council tips its hand on possible charter changes

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Though the Wicomico County Council has yet to select a citizen’s panel to scrutinize its County Charter, council members already have a long list of changes they’d like to see discussed.

Under the charter, the county’s governing document must undergo scrutiny every decade. The council has been accepting applications for members to serve on the panel, which will spend the better part of a year reviewing the document and suggesting changes.

Council members have their own preliminary list, however, and it was discussed Tuesday.

While some of the ideas are more mundane -- Do council members need to be physically present at meetings? (the pandemic has made that a question) -- others are significant.

Three huge questions subject to discussion: whether to return county government to the council-administrator format, making changes to the both heralded and assailed Property Tax Revenue Cap and converting to a more-simple Property Tax Rate Cap.

Wicomico has only had two County Executives, but the notion of reverting back to the old system seems to emerge whenever the council and an executive have a significant disagreement. Dropping the elected executive would end 16 years of County Executive government.

On the Revenue Cap, the idea being explored would see the cap’s increase revised in accordance with the state’s Constant Yield Rate formula, as opposed to the current Consumer Price Index.

The Constant Yield figure would be a more accurate number that reflects county spending; the CPI reflects prices on family-associated purchases and doesn’t take into account the things the government needs to purchase.  

The Revenue Cap has always been criticized as too complicated -- there has always been suspicion that voters confused the Revenue Cap with a Tax Rate Cap in the 2004 referendum. According to the council’s current discussion points, if the county were to switch to a Tax Rate Cap, any increase in taxes would require a unanimous vote of the County Council.

Also on the council’s list: closing loophole to mandate an in-house County Attorney. This is in response to late County Executive Bob Culver’s 2014 decision to eliminate the in-house Department of Law in favor of a County Attorney whose law firm is paid by the hour.

Nearly a dozen council-initiated charter amendments have been approved by voters in recent years, entirely bypassing the citizen’s committee process. Most of those measures gave the council more power over county government by forcing the County Executive to subject more staff appointments for council approval.

The council, for example, also won an amendment that allowed it to hire its own attorney, rather than rely on the official County Attorney, whose loyalty was most often given to the County Executive.

It’s clear that many of the council members’ ideas are based on their experiences in working with Culver:

  • The council -- rather than just the executive -- would be able to appoint Citizen Advisory Boards.
  • Executive Branch appointees for director and assistant director positions would require council confirmation prior to the person’s formal hiring.
  • The County Executive would be required to reply to information requests to specific council members.
  • Anyone named an acting director in the Executive Branch would need a formal hiring date declared to accurately measure the 90-day window in which the “acting” title would be allowed.
  • Examination of a provision that would state the consequences when either the executive or legislative branches violates the charter.

Another idea relates to the council’s experience in naming a replacement to an open council seat. Up for possible discussion is whether to dilute the influence of party Central Committees and bypass those political groups’ nominees in favor of a council nominee.

The last Charter Review Committee was formed and made recommendations in 2011. In the years since, the County Council has amended the charter multiple times, with those changes being initiated by council members and approved by voters in a referendum.

The last complete rewriting of the charter occurred in 2006, when the County Executive form of government was implemented.

Monday was the deadline for citizen applicants to serve on the committee.

The council intends to appoint committee members in March, and the committee will begin its work shortly thereafter. The time frame will enable the County Council to have sufficient opportunity to consider the Charter Review Committee’s recommendations, hold public meetings and to prepare language for any proposed Charter amendments for placement on the ballot of the general election in 2022.