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Local courtesy won't apply if local officials can't agree

March 29, 2007

It now appears that two local bills - one aimed at changing the way the Washington County School Board is elected, the other at overcoming a hurdle to the construction of a new hospital - are dead in the water.

Bills that deal with purely local matters often get what is called "local courtesy," a lack of opposition from other areas' lawmakers.

But getting local courtesy requires two things: That local delegation members express their support for the bill in question and that officials back home not oppose it. That didn't happen with either of these bills.

The delegation must now regroup, decide what is in the best interests of Washington County citizens and work together to accomplish that.

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When Del. Christopher Shank, R-Washington, introduced a bill to allow citizens to decide whether they wanted the School Board elected at-large, as it is now, or by districts, we urged the current board not to oppose it.

We took that stance because we felt that a fight over the structure of the School Board might distract the delegation from the more urgent task of getting the maximum amount of school-construction cash.

The hospital bill would require anyone challenging a Washington County zoning or land-use decision related to a medical facility to secure a bond to cover the estimated cost of delays related to the appeal.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, chair of the committee that heard Del. John Donoghue's bill, said "local courtesy" would apply to this bill, if the delegation backed it.

The problem is that at four members have indicated they won't sign on. And unless Del. Donoghue, D-Washington, can convince them to do so, the bill will probably go down in flames.

Despite their different subjects, the bills share a common problem. School Board members say Shank didn't discuss his bill with them prior to the session.

Not only that, but Roxanne Ober, the current board president, said that for the past three or four years, the board has sent the delegation a letter outlining its legislative priorities and has gotten no response. Obviously, some of the lines of communication are down and need repair.

The health bill, introduced at the request of the Washington County Health System, was filed late and some members felt that it should have been a delegation bill, as opposed to Donoghue's alone.

In both cases, the lawmakers had laudable goals - giving citizens a choice in how they want to elect School Board members and ending the barriers to the construction of a new hospital.

But as Shank and Donoghue have found out, getting legislation passed involves more than just crafting the language of a bill. It requires talking to those involved and hearing their arguments for or against the proposal.

The natural reaction of those who haven't been consulted is likely to be opposition. If anything positive results from what has happened with these two bills, it should be a resolve by all of the parties involved to talk about their differences before the next General Assembly session starts.

As Del. Sheila Hixson, D-Montgomery, chair of the committee that heard Shank's bill, said Tuesday, if the parties involved don't agree, "we're not going to be the arbiter."

In other words, don't ask other counties' lawmakers to referee when Washington County leaders can't agree.

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