On Nov. 8, Anne Arundel County voters will be asked to vote on six amendments to their County Charter. Some relate to relatively trivial issues, such as changing “the title of the Director of Programming to Economic Development Officer.” Others, although more consequential, don’t address key governance problems. Most of the information citizens will receive, if any, about the amendments, will come from incumbent politicians and special interests who supported placing the amendments on the ballot. Our charter revision process needs fixing.
A charter is to county government what the Maryland Constitution is to state government: It allocates power among the various branches of government and protects the people’s fundamental rights. A core principle of democratic theory is that constitutional reforms must be approved by the sovereign (“we the people”), not the sovereign’s agents (e.g., County Council), because a sovereign would have a conflict of interest if given control over fundamental law. That’s why voters must approve local and state amendments to fundamental law.
Citizens, media and politicians naturally focus on public issues, such as education, health and safety, that can provide them with an immediate, tangible benefit. But core democratic governance issues may have a greater long-term impact on their well-being. For example, the wealth of highly democratic countries such as the United States, Britain and Germany tends to be much higher than that of pseudo-democratic countries such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela.
Admirably, Anne Arundel’s County Charter counteracts our natural inclinations by mandating a decennial convening of a Charter Revision Commission after the decennial U.S. Census. The County Council appoints the commission members, and the commission proposes charter reforms for the council to place on the ballot for popular approval.
In addition to voting on County Council-approved amendments, citizens need a meaningful mechanism to bypass the council’s veto power over proposed amendments. The council’s veto power means that reforms that would strengthen county democracy at the expense of incumbent county councilors (and their powerful special interest allies) don’t get introduced. A secondary effect of the current charter revision system is abysmal opportunities for thoughtful public deliberation.
The following reform would fix the harmful conflicts of interest and poor public deliberation built into the current charter revision system:
Allow the County Council to keep its current Charter Revision Commission but alongside that commission create a decennial Citizens’ Charter Reform Jury composed of randomly selected registered voters. This jury would vet petitions for charter reform signed by at least 100 registered voters.
The jury would consist of 140 randomly selected registered voters stratified by geography (20 from each council district), gender (10 males and females from each district) and party affiliation (to mirror the county’s partisan makeup). Anne Arundel’s Circuit Court would do the jury selection, and a panel of five randomly selected Circuit Court judges would moderate the jury’s proceedings. The panel would also administer a public website where — as with federal rulemakings — all proposed reforms would be posted along with the opportunity for public comments and reply comments.
The jury would meet on four Saturdays. At the first meeting, jurors would listen to the authors of the citizen petitions that met the required signature threshold. Representatives of the County Council’s Charter Revision Commission would be given the opportunity to critique their arguments. A debate format with rebuttals would be allowed. The hearing would be webcast and published online. After the hearing, jurors would have an opportunity to deliberate privately among themselves in randomly selected groups of ten. At a second meeting a week later, jurors would vote on each proposal, deciding which ones should make it to the second round a month later.
The second round would follow the same basic process. Citizen petitions surviving the second round would be placed on the ballot at the next general election. The number of rounds could be revised if recommended by the judicial panel and approved by the jury.
It would be a felony to lobby jurors directly. But attempts at influence via indirect means such as the public website would be encouraged.
Alas, both the County Council and county executive would be unlikely to allow such a charter reform to be placed on the ballot because it would function as a check on their power. Fortunately, our charter provides a mechanism to bypass this obstacle: the citizen initiative.
Meeting its large signature threshold (10,000 valid signatures, which requires gathering about 20,000) is daunting. But the difficulty getting such a democratic reform proposal on the ballot illustrates why a Citizens’ Charter Reform Jury is needed: Incumbent power brokers in Anne Arundel County have too much power to block needed democratic reforms.
J.H. Snider, president of iSolon.org, regularly writes about issues of democratic reform.