Will charter work here? Only if citizens participate

March 29, 2006|by BOB MAGINNIS

Proposals to make give Washington County charter home rule have been voted down twice in the past 30 years. Now, spurred on by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, the idea is heading for the polls again. Will this latest effort be successful where the others have failed?

After listening to the members of the Task Force on Home Rule last week, I feel it will depend on how involved the average citizen wants to be in local government.

Why do I say that? Because under the current commissioner form of government, anything really important - the excise tax on new construction, for example - has to go to the Maryland General Assembly.

If you didn't pay attention while the commissioners were proposing it, you can still appeal to the local delegation, to either kill it or add features to make it less objectionable.


Under charter home rule government, which the nine-member task force recommended on a 5-4 vote, the commissioners are relieved of the need to go to Annapolis every time they want to change some feature of a law that's been passed.

But if the citizens don't like what the commissioners do, there would no longer be an appeal to the delegation. Instead, they would have to petition the measure to referendum.

Is one system better than the other? Members of the task force feel that charter government would bring government closer to the people and in the words of member Monda Sagalkin, "it helps keep more people actively involved."

There are protections in the charter system against the commissioners passing a law quickly, then daring citizens to do something about it.

According to task force member Joe Kroboth, "the legislative process is a lot more formalized."

Voting on legislative proposals only takes place so many days after the proposal has been introduced and only on certain "voting days."

"Some counties set the first Tuesday and the third Tuesday for voting," Kroboth said.

Diane Eves, another task force member, said that "it not only allows legislation to be done locally, but it keeps the General Assembly from interfering in local laws."

Members noted that in the case of a recent bill that would have allowed Montgomery County to use speed-enforcement cameras, Washington County delegates got involved in a matter that should have been that county's decision.

Kroboth noted that the legislation allowing counties to choose charter government were written by General Assembly members.

"They're the ones who created this, to free their time up to deal with state matters," he said.

So what happens next?

The proposal is on the commissioners' agenda on Tuesday, April 4, at 11:20 a.m.

If the commissioners decide to go forward, Kroboth said, they would propose a charter-writing panel of five, seven or nine members. Citizens would have 30 to 60 days to propose their own members. The top vote-getters would then have 18 months to write the charter, which would be put on the ballot at the next election.

Members of the task force know that charter will not be easy to sell to every citizen. Brien Poffenberger, a task force member, said that the opposition tends to say that a charter "paves the way for big government."

But Kroboth said task force research shows that "there is no real correlation between the cost of government and the form of government."

The only item that would add expense is if the charter was written to add an elected county executive, Kroboth said. That person would then have his or her own staff and legal counsel.

The upside of an elected county executive is that such officials get an additional meeting each year with the governor, who in Maryland is the only one who gets to put money into the state budget.

In the 2002 general election, voter turnout in Washington County was 53.26 percent. Of 70,090 registered voters, 37,327 people voted.

That means that 32,763 citizens didn't bother to go to the polls - and those were the registered voters!

The commissioner form of government is probably better suited to the county as it was 30 or 40 years ago, when many citizens' fondest hope was that government would just leave them alone.

Life is more complicated now, but a more elaborate form of local government will work well only if citizens are willing to pay attention and participate.

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

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