Home-rule draft allows for council of seven

September 01, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

Washington County would elect a seven-member governing council - five from districts, two at large - under a newly released draft charter for home rule.

A board has been studying the best way for the county to adopt home rule, which shifts certain lawmaking power from the state to local officials.

The charter board's plan for switching from commissioner rule to charter rule is scheduled to go to public vote on Feb. 12, 2008, the same day as Maryland's primary election.

If voters approve the charter, a county council - the five current Washington County Commissioners - would take over.

The council would expand to seven members in 2010, when the current commissioners' terms expire.

First, the draft will go to the current commissioners for review. Singer said the commissioners are scheduled to discuss the draft at a meeting in October.


Two previous attempts to switch Washington County to home rule failed.

In 1977, a proposal failed with 38 percent of the vote, said Jeanne Singer, the chair of the county's charter board. Another proposal failed with 45 percent of the vote in 1988, she said.

The charter board has released its new report and is eager to get feedback.

Singer said service groups, churches and the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce have invited board members to speak about the proposal. The board also would like to have a town-meeting-type public forum.

So far, there has been sparse reaction to the draft, Singer said Friday. An online discussion board has had about 6,300 hits, but only about two dozen comments.

Eight Maryland counties, including Washington and Frederick, have commissioner forms of government.

The other 15 counties have home rule, either by code or by charter.

Charter home rule gives counties the most flexibility to govern themselves, Singer said.

Currently, with a commissioner government, Washington County must get the Maryland General Assembly's approval to enact laws on relatively minor topics.

The proposed new charter also would let citizens petition for a referendum on issues - although some topics, such as budgets, would be exempt, Singer said.

Asked why the charter board did not recommend a county executive, board member David Hanlin said a county council would be a smoother transition into charter home rule.

The charter could be amended later to create a county executive position if residents want it, Singer said.

The charter requires an automatic review every 10 years.

The charter recommended a mixture of district and at-large council members for balance, Singer said.

Some people afraid of concentrated power in one region want district representation, while the addition of at-large members counteracts concerns about parochialism, she said.

Singer said the board thought that three at-large members might side with one district, creating a majority on the council, so the draft calls for two at-large members.

She said the only cost associated with the change in government structure would be two more salaries, with benefits, when the council expands from five to seven members.

Washington County Commissioners currently are paid $30,000 per year.

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