City charter review should be apolitical

Kai Hagen

October 10, 2004

All too often, in matters monumental and miniscule, the injection of politics can turn almost any public discussion into a three-ring circus.

And so it has been recently with the lively debate about a few lines in the Frederick city charter regarding the residency requirement for mayor, and by extension, all candidates for the job.

From Article III ("The Mayor"), Section 26 ("Qualifications"): "The mayor must have been a legal resident of Frederick for at least three (3) years immediately preceding his election and shall have and maintain his principal place of residence or domicile, as defined by Maryland law, as amended from time to time, in the City of Frederick during his term and must be a qualified registered voter of the city."

Simple enough. It's pretty clear. It's been on the books for some time, all the while in quiet and uncontentious obscurity.

But all of the sudden it's a political hot potato, the subject of many recent newspaper articles, editorials, columns and letters to the editor, as well as local radio and cable television debates. And many elected officials within and beyond the City of Frederick have been weighing in with such strongly worded opinions, you have to wonder why we hadn't heard much about it sooner.

It's no surprise if a lot of folks are confused, or skeptical.

After all, remove the politics, and what you have is a basic requirement that's been the law for more than a century. Of course, times change. The city has changed. Perhaps the requirement should be changed. At the very least, it seems obvious it needs to be revisited, discussed and debated.

Add the politics of the moment to the process, however, and the result is a anything but a thoughtful and civil public exploration about what's best for the City of Frederick, or how the current law or any changes conform to the Maryland Constitution.

It's been said those who like sausage and respect the law should never see either made. That must be especially so when the latter process is made part and parcel of a political campaign. And that's where we are now. Any debate about this matter now will be hopelessly contorted and contaminated by the personal and political interests of the prominent players.

It may well be that Mayor Jennifer Dougherty believes keeping the current requirement is the right thing to do for Frederick. Alderman Donna Ramsburg may really think increasing it to five years is best for the city. It's just as likely Alderman David Lenhart honestly thinks it isn't. State Sen. Alex Mooney might advocate reducing the requirement to one year even if he doesn't have a horse in the race. And so on.

Who knows?

But the best way to find out, and engage a reasonable public discussion, and serve the residents and interests of the city, is to separate the politics from the process as much as possible. And that's not possible any time before the next election.

Even tabling the charter review process for the moment might not put an end to the controversy. A prospective candidate may mount a legal challenge, knowing that some challenges in other states have found anything more than a year to be too long. That possibility is all the more reason to slow things down, to wait, to be thorough.

To complicate matters further, though, the current provision seems to fly in the face of common sense when applied, for example, to the specific case of former Mayor Ron Young, who has been encouraged by some to run for his old job.

Whether you agree with the intent of the requirement or not, and whether you would support the former mayor or not, can you doubt the requirement was not written to apply to someone who has lived in the city for about 50 years, who already served as its mayor for 16 years, and who will have lived in the city, again, for 18 months come election day?

What could epitomize the definition of a technicality more than blocking Mr. Young from the ballot because he happened to live for a while in a home entirely surrounded by the city (except for a road in), but not in the city? Straining the application of the requirement even more is the fact that the former mayor moved his address to his mother's seven years ago, and has been voting in that city precinct ever since.

I don't know how all this is going to play out, of course. I only wish that everyone who cares enough to be involved would play the same way, in the interest of what is best for the city, no matter how they think it might tilt the field in their favor or not.

I'm won't hold my breath, though, because, as Will Rogers once said: "You can't legislate intelligence and common sense into people."

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at