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Are citizens ready for charter? Without their help, it will fail

June 15, 2006

Let the people decide.

So said the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday when they voted in favor of naming a board to write a document to give the county charter home rule.

Once written, the proposal would not be voted on until the presidential election of 2008, but it will require the average citizen to pay more attention to what the commissioners are doing.

Why? 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.

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

Under charter home rule, if citizens don't like a law the commissioners have passed, they will have to petition it to referendum.

But even before that, citizens will have an opportunity to become involved in choosing the members of a charter-writing panel.

The commissioners can appoint five, seven or nine members, but citizens can challenge those choices and force a special election to determine who would be on the board that writes the charter.

All of this means that citizens will have to pay more attention to the process of government - and to the people they elect. Voting for someone just because they have a familiar name could have adverse consequences, since the county's General Assembly delegation would no longer act as a safety net.

Are citizens ready to participate at a higher level? They'll have two years to decide, but the election results from 2002 suggest that there is room for improvement.

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.

In other words, if citizens want their local government to have more power, they will have to pay more attention to who they elect and what those elected officials do.

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