Talbot County, Maryland, is located on the Chesapeake Bay, in the heart of the state’s Eastern Shore. As of the 2010 census, the county’s population was 37,782. Led by a five-member County Council, in many ways, its county government is reflective of rural county governments across the United States—going about its business with little public scrutiny.
Although each council member in Talbot County represents about 8,000 constituents (close to the national average level of county representation of 6,600:1), one can question whether having a county council with only five members is a good idea. After all, having decisions made by a small council rather than by a larger deliberative body increases the chance that deliberations are cut short and the decision-making process is captured by a few individuals, rather than being representative of the community’s wider interests.
This argument is well-illustrated by a recent exit interview conducted by a local public affairs portal—the Talbot Spy—of Dirck Bartlett, who is concluding his twelve years on the Talbot County Council.
Bartlett characterizes county politics in Talbot County as resolving the tension between business interests on one side and the interests of the general population on the other. Because the council only has five members, an alliance of three members—in this case, “Jennifer, Corey and Chuck”—can determine important county legislation and regulations that impact the county as a whole. It is therefore relatively easy for political parties—through the County Central Committee—and local business interests to control or “capture” the local decision-making process.
In his exit interview, Bartlett provides candid insights into how local power brokers—including the local developers and the Chamber of Commerce —are working to systematically undo Talbot’s long-standing commitment for land protection and conservation.
“Some of the legislation they were trying to get through had to do with a three-vote majority on the council being able to put anything anywhere in the county… [which would have allowed developers] to plunk down an amusement park in the middle of a cornfield if three people on the council think it’s a good idea”.
These same agents, he believes, showed their influence over a majority of his fellow Republican council members in 2018 in such matters as zoning, community noise management, sewer infrastructure, and short-term vacation rental regulations.
Watch the entire exit interview: