Friday, June 05, 2009

At Least We Aren’t California, Part Three

By Marc Korman.

In Parts 1 and 2 we explored California’s flawed political structure and failed reform. Today, we will see what warning signs there might be for Montgomery County in California’s troubles.

Before delving into some of the disturbing parallels between California and Montgomery County, we should make clear that the two are quite different in their size, political structure, and problems. But that does not mean we cannot learn some lessons.

Leadership Vacuum
Unlike California, Montgomery County does not have term limits. But a series of retirements, electoral defeats, and deaths have left the County Council short on experience. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that each year the Council has a new President and Vice President. Just as sooner or later, every Californian will be Speaker of their Assembly, every Montgomery County resident will have a crack at Council President.

A change should not be rushed into, but the County should consider increasing the length of the Council President term to two or four years but still have the Council elect one of their own or convert it to an elected office where candidates could specifically run for Council President. A new leadership position could improve political stability and reduce Council infighting.

Flawed Political Systems
Until this past November, Montgomery County had a sensible charter limit on property taxes. It kept the rate low, but allowed seven of nine councilmembers to agree to raise rates above the limits if absolutely necessary. With such a small legislative body, it made sense to have such a high standard to pierce the limit. If voters did not think an increase justified, as one notable regular reader of Maryland Politics Watch would argue, they could make it an issue at the next election.

Unfortunately, the Ficker Amendment turned a sensible policy into a ticking fiscal time bomb. The Amendment to the charter which passed into law in 2008 requires nine out of nine members to agree before the charter limit is pierced. In fact, the Amendment specifically requires nine members, so if there is a vacancy during the budget process, as there was this year, it would be legally impossible for the Council to break the charter limit regardless of the need or popular support.

Rule by Initiative
And speaking of the Ficker Amendment, Republicans in Montgomery County seemed to have discovered their love for direct democracy by embracing ballot initiatives. Robin Ficker has been pursuing his policy agenda that way for years, but last year saw an attempt by some to petition the County’s transgender protections to the ballot with a fear mongering campaign. The ballot initiative was averted only due to a technicality. Complicated legal and political questions should not be dealt with that way. Done poorly, it could lead Montgomery County towards a California-style system where laws are a patchwork of poorly understood charter amendments and repealed statutes with no sensible structure and a complete lack of accountability by elected leaders.

Unlike California, the government in Montgomery County still works well. But seeing what institutional failings have brought California to the edge can serve as a cautionary tale for our county and other places throughout the country.