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Back to the ward system: An antidote for low turnout?

May 28, 1997

In 1981, Hagerstown voters narrowly approved a referendum vote eliminating the city's five wards, a move which forced candidtes for council to run at-large. Though they will deny it to this day, those who pushed at-large election of council members hoped the move would eliminate certain members whose actions made the city government the target of jokes and sneers.

Well, nobody on the council has challenged a colleague to a fistfight lately, as happened in the old days, but voter turnout has fallen from 47 percent in 1981 to just under 22 percent in the latest election. The argument could be made that this election was a fluke, without a defining issue (or a single press conference by any one of the candidates!), but the decline in turnout has been steady over the past 16 years. It is time to look again at whether the city should return to wards.

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The argument against election-by-ward is the same as it's always been: Candidates elected by ward tend to have narrow interests and vote for what benefits their ward instead of taking a look at what benefits the entire city.

The best argument in favor of a return to wards is that it would allow candidates to run without forcing them to cover the entire city. Candidates who didn't have a pockteful of money could still compete by doing lots of door-to-door work in their areas.

Under a ward system, Larry Vaughn would have reclaimed the West End seat he lost in 1985, beating Eugene "Buddie" Morris by 600 votes. As it was, he watched perennial candidate Morris drain away votes that might have provided the margin of victory because both had to run at-large.

Vaughn said this week that he's proposing a modified ward system which would enlarge the council by adding one at-large seat. In that way, Vaughn said, the North End would still be guaranteed three seats, making it less likely voters there would begrudge other areas ward representation.

Of course, voters there might also say to heck with the rest of the city. But if maintaining control results in an ever-declining number of citizens participating in the city election process, is the victory worth the price?

Why would do such a study? Again, this area feels the lack of a strong organization like the League of Woman Voters to take on such a job.

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Vaughn called to complain this week that Morris' letter to the editor, which criticized him, was printed too late - Saturday, May 17 - to allow him to reply before the May 20 election. Yes, we should have called him to let him know it was coming, and if I had it to do over again, I would have. My apologies to Vaughn.

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Even though I agreed with the opinion expressed in the Washington County school board's letter to parents urging a tax increase to fund education, I'm uncomfortable allowing elected officials to use public funds to express a political point of view.

The move opens up the possibility that some other group opposed to a tax increase will sue for the same access, so that children can bring their parents letters that say that any more dollars spent on education are a waste.

It's the same dilemma faced by school administrators who faced with a decision oover whether to allow an evangelical Christian youth group to distribute their newsletter in the schools. Once you've decided that the distribution on religious newsletters is okay, you cannot decide that the newsletter for (let's say) the Heaven's Gate cult is unacceptable.

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My wife and I were recently privileged to attend the retirement party of Old Forge Elementary School Principal Ron Phillips, who is being recruited to run for either the school board or the county commission.

His closing words to his fellow eduactors made a lot of sense: "It's as important how you treat the child as what you teach the child."

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The Herald-Mail continues to sample columnists to replace the late Mike Royko. Three readers have said they don't like Donald Kaul and two like Kathleen Parker. We've had a number of suggestions for other samples including Tom Sowell, Rheta Grimsley Johnson and Molly Ivins. Some have even suggested we put Tim Rowland on the editorial page, but I'm not sure the news department personnel would yield his column, which runs two days a week on their pages.

Tim does have what Royko had, and what we're looking for: A marksman's eye for the stuffed shirts and baloney vendors, and the ability to bring their inflated egos down to earth with a sharp dose of humor.

If you have any suggestions orcomments, please write to Editorial Page Editor, The Herald-Mail, P.O. box 439, Hagerstown, Md., 21740.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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