Before you vote for charter, read fine print

September 29, 2007|By TOM BERRY

To the editor:

Lloyd "Pete" Waters had a very thoughtful column in a recent Sunday paper concerning charter home rule. Many more articles need to be written on this issue, because it is serious business. He expressed some anxiety that the charter board was all in agreement while writing the charter.

I can assure him that we were not in lockstep. There were many discussions of the issues. I will be drafting a minority report to discuss some of the more important ones.

His column made the observation that charter home rule would allow more autonomy for local government with less oversight from the legislative delegation. To some extent this is true, but in the last several legislative sessions there were a low percentage of bills that could have been passed by a Charter County Council independent of the delegation. A little more autonomy to pass laws is scant reason to change our form of county government.


To focus on autonomy misses the point. The value of charter home rule is to have the opportunity to make county government closer and more responsive to the citizens and taxpayers. This charter, as drafted, fails to fill this need.

This letter would be far too long if I went over all the issues, so let me address just one of the smaller ones, the election of County Council members. I intend to get to the others in subsequent letters.

By law we are limited to five, seven or nine council members. The charter board chose seven members. This is a reasonable number because we are a growing county and home rule will require more work from the council because they will be assuming some other tasks now done by the delegation. (By the way, did you know we currently have between 45 and 50 boards, committees and other groups established in the county that the present commissioners oversee?)

There are several options on election of council members. They can be elected countywide, by district or by some combination of the two. If government closer to the people is the goal, electing each council member from a separate district is the most effective. Council members would live in, or not far from, your neighborhood, providing ample opportunity to talk to your council member before and after they are elected. A larger base of candidates is probable because it would be easier and less expensive to run a campaign in a smaller district one is familiar with, as opposed to countywide. I am not opposed to having the council elected countywide as it is now; it seems to work. But having been elected to a countywide office, I know that such a campaign is a daunting task which many might not wish to undertake.

As presently drafted, the charter proscribes five of the councilmembers to be elected by district and two countywide. If you do the math, you will find it is possible that one district could have three councilmembers, just one vote shy of a majority. Another consideration is this - it takes money and organization to run an effective campaign. Who has the money and the organization? It could be any business group, education lobby, religious or political organization that can in effect elect their own captive councilmembers. I do not believe that this would be good for Washington County.

As a concept, charter home rule is neither good nor bad. What matters is how the charter is written and what it includes or does not include. It could improve your government or it might be harmful. Waters concluded his column with some good advice - look this charter over closely before you cast your vote in February.

Tom Berry

Member of the Charter Board


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