If you think that changing your city or county charter can help improve the functioning of your local government, give it a try. It is challenging work. It is detailed work. It takes time and lots of research. Over the time that you work on your effort there will be highs and lows that provide you with great hope and sometimes despair.
In the final analysis, with the right support, whether you are successful or not, you will positively impact your community and make its citizens understand how important good government is and how important it is to have good candidates for elective office.
In Maryland, cities can change their charters either by action of their city council or by the referendum process that requires obtaining enough signatures of registered voters to put the matter on the ballot for the citizens to vote for or against. I participated in the successful effort to change the charter of the City of Cambridge to establish a city manager form of government. That happened by a vote of the City Council. While there have been challenges in transitioning from one city manager to another and transitioning from one city council to the next, the improvement in the functioning of government and the resources that have come to Cambridge in part because of our having professional management have been significant.
When we hired our first city manager, a national developer by the name of Charlie Fairchild saw promise here that has resulted in the redevelopment of what is now called Cambridge Marketplace with the Shore Regional Health Emergency Room and medical offices, new businesses, and some fast-food restaurants. In addition, he redeveloped a portion of nearby Dorchester Square for additional businesses, government offices, and fast-food restaurants. He is now developing up to three hundred homes on the Hyatt property all of which helps to improve the tax base and the quality of life for the city and county.
Other development has followed with the recently opened Philips Packing House Building F and the Sailwinds property that is now looking for developers for the various parcels of property there for businesses and residential and other property uses.
With counties, the charter change process is different in that the only way to change a county charter is by referendum after obtaining signatures of 20% of the registered voters. Not only is the process different, it is also more difficult. While we are in the midst of that effort at this point, we can already see change happening.
With primary elections coming in July and then the final vote in November, the two issues that the Dorchester Citizens for Better Government have raised have grabbed the attention of registered voters, the candidates for the positions on County Council, and last Tuesday evening the current County Council.
One of our issues has been the lack of transparency by the current council. Despite requests of the citizens, the County Council by 3-2 votes previously refused to show their meetings on CATV or the internet despite the challenges of Covid-19. During the campaign process, the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce was able to hold candidate forums that included questions on the two issues that the Dorchester Citizens for Better Government had been advocating for in its petitions. All the candidates that participated in the forums, except one incumbent, supported in one way or another the basic issues that we raised.
This past Tuesday evening the County Council reversed itself on the issue of holding the meetings on CATV or the internet and voted to do just that. Because I had to listen in on the phone; the audio for the meeting was poor; and microphones were either not available or poorly placed, I am not sure if the vote was 4-0 or 5-0, but it passed. Now all we need our County Council to do on this issue, at this point, is to vote to provide the non-confidential documents for each meeting to the public electronically by placing them on the County website for anyone interested to review. While we need to have the charter changed on this and the issue of allowing the county manager to actually manage the day-to-day operations of staff, they will have to wait. What we want is to ensure that future County Councils are not able to be less transparent as they have been. The other night was a good first step that would not have happened without the work of the Dorchester Citizens for Better Government.
More on these issues will be coming as things progress.
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.