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Final version of Washington Co. charter presented

October 31, 2007|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY - The final version of a proposed charter that would change Washington County's form of government was presented Tuesday to the County Commissioners.

In a change to previous drafts of the charter, the number of signatures required for a referendum was lowered and district-based representation was eliminated.

Under the charter, the county's governing body would change from a five-member board of commissioners to a seven-member county council.

Residents will be able to vote on whether to adopt the charter during the Feb. 12, 2008, election, when the measure will be placed on the ballot.

Generally, a county council would have more power to enact legislation than the commissioners, who must get the Maryland General Assembly to approve laws on relatively minor topics.

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The decision to eliminate election districts was made after the group appointed to create the charter received complaints from the public, said Jeanne F. Singer, the charter board's chairwoman.

"We were overwhelmed with calls and letters," Singer said.

Opponents of election districts, including several county commissioners, have said that because the county's population is so dense near the City of Hagerstown the districts would not be drawn around specific municipalities. Instead, the districts would extend out from the urban growth area.

"In my mind, a compact district means if I'm from Boonsboro, my district representative is from Boonsboro," Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said during a meeting with the charter board two weeks ago.

Under the final charter, voters would elect seven councilmembers, all of whom would represent the county as a whole.

Also changed in the final version of the charter was the amount of votes required to bring an issue to referendum.

Under charter home rule, voters would be able to challenge some laws by collecting a number of signatures on a petition. That number was changed in the final charter from 10 percent of registered voters to seven percent. With about 80,000 registered voters in Washington County, the revision would lower the number of signatures required from 8,000 to 5,600.

"We wanted the number to be low enough to inspire passion in the voters but high enough that one group could not throw a roadblock in everything the council wants to do," Singer said.

Issues like budgets, taxes and short-term borrowing would not be subject to referendum. To obtain a referendum on long-term borrowing, the signatures of 15 percent of the county's registered voters would be required.

Fifteen counties in Maryland have home rule, either by code or charter. Eight counties, including Washington and Frederick, have commissioner forms of government.

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