As I mentioned in last week’s article about the Cambridge City Charter, “…words in the Charter do mean something, and it is not up to elected officials to decide that they can ignore them or…”. This week I would like to take the discussion a little further with regard to our county charter.
The Dorchester Citizens for Better Government was formed last year because our county council had failed until recently to follow the requirements of the Charter and establish a Charter Commission. As a result of the Dorchester Citizens work, two petitions are being circulated among the registered voters in Dorchester County seeking signatures for two ballot initiatives. They seek to allow the voters to vote in November on the proposed changes to the charter that would obtain greater transparency in county government and greater efficiency and effectiveness in its day-to-day operations by showing the meetings on TV or over the internet and by having a county manager that actually runs the day-to-day operations of the county.
Under Section 603 of our current county charter, the following language appears: 603. Charter Review Commission.
- A Charter Review Commission shall be appointed by the Council no later than three months following the Council’s installation after the general election of 2010 and every 10 years thereafter, within three months following the Council’s installation after the general election. The Commission may also be appointed at such other times as the Council, in its discretion, may determine. The Charter Review Commission shall be composed of seven registered voters of the County, including at least one member from each council district established pursuant to Section 204 of this Charter. The chair of the Commission shall be elected from and by the members of the Commission.
While there is additional language in this section and what is written could be clearer, the bolded language above is clear. Ten years following the 2010 election and council installation, the “Charter Review Commission shall be appointed by Council…”. This time around over a year later it was finally established . Now some might say that the Covid-19 Pandemic is a good reason not to have established the commission, but the county council and most other organizations have continued to function through this time.
It was not until mid-2021 that county council began the process of establishing the Charter Review Commission. As of the time that I write this in April 2022, the February 15th and March 1st county council meeting minutes that are the last currently available to the public indicate that only five of the seven members have been appointed. Missing were a second at-large member and the representative for District 5. I just learned that the other two members have been appointed as well, but the general public would not be aware due to the delay by county council to approve the minutes of its more recent meetings.
Even with the Commission being formed, given how long it has taken, there is no guarantee that any of the recommendations it might make would be in time to be placed on the November ballot or would be approved by the council. In addition, given the council’s apparent lack of an appetite to forming a Commission and complying with the law, the council could well decide to delay consideration of, or reject outright, any recommendations from its own Commission so as to avert a November vote by county citizens.
It is for the above reasons and many others that the Dorchester Citizens for Better Government have undertaken these ballot initiatives. The citizens of Dorchester County are expected to follow the laws of the county, state, and federal government. If we don’t there could be consequences for that behavior.
Should not the county council be held to the same standard? While there is no requirement under the current charter for county council to take any action on any recommendations of the County Charter Commission, the language of the charter about appointment of the commission is clear. Because of the lack of transparency by the current county council and the manner in which its meetings are held, most of the public is unaware of the requirement for the creation of the Charter Commission every ten years or the fact that county council has now been over a year since it began its efforts to appoint the Charter Commission.
Interestingly, since the current council member from District 5 is not running for re-election and there is no provision for the county council to appoint a member if she had continued to fail to appoint one, the Charter Commission might want to consider recommending a solution to that challenge and others that have presented themselves this time around when it has the opportunity to meet.
Words have meaning. Citizens are entitled to be made aware. County Council needs to follow the law in a timely manner.
Thanks for reading. Please be in touch.
Judge Rideout is the former Chief Judge of the Alexandria, VA Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (1989-2004). From 2004 until the present he has consulted in different states to support their efforts to improve their child welfare systems. From 2016 to early 2021, he was the Ward 1 Commissioner on the Cambridge City Council. Throughout his career, he has been an advocate for improving the lives of children in his and other communities. He can be reached at email@example.com