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Fresh push for home rule

March 30, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS - The relationship between the Washington County Commissioners and the county's delegation in the Maryland General Assembly has had several difficult moments in the past few years.

In 1995 Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, amended a bill that required the commissioners to spend $250,000 on the Fairplay Volunteer Fire Department. Last year the delegation amended a tip jar gambling bill so the commissioners could not cut their spending to nonprofit organizations.

The latest turf battle erupted last week when the delegation agreed to support legislation to that would force the county to restore relations with the union that represents 87 Roads Department, landfill and County Commuter employees.

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"These are mandates that they continually shove down our throats," said County Commissioner James R. Wade.

He calls the relationship between the delegation and the commissioners "strained, to say the least." Others agree that there is tension, but refuse to point fingers.

"The biggest disappointment is in terms of the lack of ongoing, open communication between the two groups," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Wade said the tug-of-war between Annapolis and Hagerstown has brought him to one conclusion:

"To me, this is an excellent example of why I think charter counties exist," he said.

Charter home rule is a form of government that gives local authorities broader powers than the commissioner form of government.

Charter governments - there are eight among the state's 23 counties - can issue bonds, pass and repeal local laws, and impose fines for violating local laws.

Currently, getting tasks like that done in Washington County requires legislation to be passed in the General Assembly.

Wade sees a charter as a way to reverse the "trend to constantly rule the county from Annapolis" and prevent the legislators from taking the kind of action they took last week.

"How many other laws out there can they change to get whatever they want?" he said.

Wade said he would like to see the county renew its debate over the home rule.

"I really believe that people want to control their own destiny here in the county," he said.

But Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said not having home rule provides county voters with another layer of checks and balances that guards the county against one group becoming too powerful. The controversy involving the commissioners and the union was evidence of how that works, he said.

"I think the delegation wants to do the right thing and protect Washington County. We want to do our jobs," he said.

County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers agreed that home rule opens up the possibility of a very few people having great control over the county's business. But he added: "I think home rule needs to be revisited."

County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook could not be reached to comment for this story.

In both 1977 and 1988, county voters defeated attempts for home rule in referendums. But Bowers and Wade said a well-written charter could find enough votes now.

"If people understood the difference, they'd probably support it," Wade said.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, said the latest commissioners-delegation dispute isn't necessarily the final straw before a serious effort is made for charter home rule.

"Let's give this a little time and see if things calm down," he said.

Donoghue agreed.

"This too shall pass. We've gone through this before with minor skirmishes," he said.

Bowers not only said the disputes won't hurt the county, they can actually help in having divergent views shape public policy.

"I think it's healthy,'' Bowers said. "I don't think there's any problem with arguing, with debating. I often think there's not enough debate."

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