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Voters must do much more if they OK a charter system

December 22, 2005

The chairman of a task force studying a possible change in Washington County's form of government said Monday the group will present its findings to the County Commissioners in February.

By then the citizens should be ready to think about whether they want a change - and whether what seems like a good idea at first glance might actually be worse that what's in place at present.

The agenda for the task force is the study of code home rule and charter home rule.

Both of these systems would give the commissioners more power than they now have. And fewer proposals for changes in county laws would have to go to the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

Of the two systems, so-called "code" home rule would be a less drastic change. Code home rule would allow the commissioners to change many local laws, but not enact any new taxes or fees not already authorized by the General Assembly.

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Charter home rule would give the commissioners more power, but it also would allow citizens to petition laws they don't agree with to referendum.

Commissioner William Wivell said that if the county had had charter home rule when the county passed its rural rezoning plan, voters could have petitioned it to referendum.

"It gives a lot of power to voters. If they don't like something, they can change it," Wivell said.

Voters have that power now, which they can exercise by changing the people chosen to represent them in the last election. If citizens don't like what the commissioners did in regard to rural rezoning, they can vote them out of office.

Allowing most major questions to go to referendum would require special elections and put matters on hold until the vote was held, not to mention increasing the cost of government.

The commissioners did not take more than two years to pass a rural rezoning plan because they didn't have public input. They had plenty, judging by the attendance at public hearings they held.

It took so long because most members of the board were looking for a way to restrict growth in agricultural areas without making anyone unhappy.

Those are two mutually incompatible goals. In such a case, true leaders do what they believe is right and allow the voters to pass judgment on their actions at the next election.

If the voters are ready to give the commissioners more power, we also hope they are ready to give candidates for office more scrutiny and vote on the basis of past performance, as opposed to electing people whose names are familiar and/or who have been around for a long time.

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