Anne Arundel County voters embraced a slew of proposed charter amendments during the Nov. 3 election, setting the stage for a new balance of power in county government.
While the results won’t be finalized until this Friday at the earliest, voters had approved every proposed charter amendment on the ballot by comfortable margins as of Wednesday. One measure in particular, which would increase the county auditor’s power, received overwhelming support.
Question A would broaden the county auditor’s authority to inspect and investigate records about county funding. Under current law, the auditor can only inspect records “pertaining to the receipt and expenditure of funds.” Once the amendment passes, the auditor would be able to audit and investigate “all records and files pertaining to County business.”
The auditor would also be able to investigate fraud or misuse of county funding if the amendment passes. As of Wednesday, the charter amendment held more than 85% approval from voters.
County Executive Steuart Pittman (D), who criticized his predecessor for squabbling with the county auditor, celebrated the amendment’s passage.
“There was a big fight over what access the auditor could have to departmental information,” Pittman said, “And I said during the campaign that an auditor is a good thing. One should be glad to have an auditor trying to create efficiencies in government.”
Republican County Councilmember Amanda Fiedler said similar bills to strengthen the auditor’s power failed before she was elected to the council. Fiedler said beefing up the auditor’s authority was an issue that she’s been looking at since the campaign trail, and thinks the amendment’s passage will give county residents an extra layer of accountability when it comes to the use of their tax dollars.
“Under accusations of waste and misuse of taxpayer dollars, the county auditor was really, before the charter amendment passed, limited in his or her abilities to fully investigate,” Fiedler said. “As a fiscal watchdog for taxpayer dollars, it’s critical to give that position all of the tools necessary to complete full and efficient investigation on any accusations of fraud or misuse.”
Peter Baron, the director of government relations for Anne Arundel County, said the county’s executive branch currently allows the auditor access to “any county business document,” but officials wanted to make sure that future administrations give the auditor the same level of access to official documents.
“There came a question of ‘well, what happens in the future administration if they don’t take the same position? Why don’t we just put this whole debate to bed?’ Baron said.
Pittman came under fire last year when the county auditor said she’d been waiting months for information about county capital projects, complicating the review of the county’s budget, The Capital Gazette reported.
Voters also signed off on giving the county council more power over some of the county executive’s appointments. Question B, which gives council members a say in the county executive’s picks for county attorney, fire chief and police chief, had more than 73% approval from voters as of Wednesday.
Under the charter amendment, county council members would also be able to halt the removal of the county attorney, although they wouldn’t be able to stop the firing of a county attorney appointed by a previous county executive.
Pittman said he was advised by previous county executives to not throw his support behind such a measure, since it would diminish his power, but added that he thinks the measure will make high-profile appointments more democratic in the county.
Pittman is currently in the process of hiring a new police chief, and said he’ll ask council members to pass a resolution of support for his pick if he nominates someone before the charter amendment goes into effect.
“With that vote of support from the council, it forces my [nominee] to meet with all the council members, so that they know him or her,” Pittman said. “It feels more like it’s the whole community that’s bringing in the new chief.”
Fiedler said giving the county council more power over those key appointments will protect the interests of different communities within Anne Arundel County. She described the amendment as a “small attempt” at creating a more equal balance of power between the county council and county executive.
“I probably would have considered other roles,” Fiedler said. “But you know, this was a small attempt at balancing the powers between the executive branch and legislative branch.”
Baron noted that the county attorney in Anne Arundel County serves as the attorney for both the county executive and members of the county council.
“This would provide the county council with a say if a county executive wants to remove the attorney, who actually has an attorney-client relationship with the county council,” Baron said. “There’s a provision in the charter amendment that allows the council to block the removal with five votes.”
Fiedler said it’s particularly important for council members to have a say in who becomes their attorney, and noted that the local legislative and executive branches don’t always agree on key issues. She noted that both charter amendments received bipartisan support when the county council sent them to the November ballot.
Anti-discrimination panel added to county charter
Voters also enshrined the county’s discrimination watchdog group, the Human Relations Commission, in the county charter. The commission was codified last year alongside the county’s fair housing law, and was tasked with enforcing that law and working to eliminate discrimination in the county.
As of Wednesday, the measure to add the anti-discrimination commission to the county charter held roughly 70% approval.
Roberto Veloso, the chairman of the Human Relations Commission, said adding the commission to the county charter doesn’t represent voters’ approval of the work commissioners have done — but a sign of work they still have to do.
“There’s a lot of discrimination out there,” Veloso said. “It’s a real issue. Of late it’s something that’s becoming a lot more prominent.”
Veloso said the coronavirus pandemic’s disparate impact on people of color, coupled with nationwide unrest over police brutality, highlighted the importance of the commission’s work. He said the commission, which is currently made up of volunteers, may recommend the county set aside funding to hire paid staff to combat discrimination.
Anne Arundel County led the state with 78 reported bias incidents or hate crimes in 2018, according to a Maryland State Police report. Veloso described tackling discrimination and racism in the county as a “massive project” that will take time.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Veloso said.
Voters signed off on other measures, including extending the probationary period for public safety recruits and extending the initial term for an acting head of any office or department. You can read more about those measures here.