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Why I support county's new charter

November 11, 2007|By JEANNE SINGER

The Washington County Charter Board thanks each member of The Herald-Mail's Opinion Club who took the time to read the draft of the charter and offer his or her comments.

Unfortunately, these comments were not published in time for the Charter Board to consider them when finalizing the charter. The final charter was presented to the County Commissioners on Oct. 30, the last day possible for the charter to be on the February ballot.

However, most of the concerns of the Opinion Club and Commissioner Kristin Aleshire that were published on Sunday relate to provisions contained in the draft charter that were revised in the final version, making the concerns moot.

The Charter Board began deliberations in December 2006 as part of the process of bringing home rule to Washington County. Home rule will put Washington County in the company of the majority of counties in Maryland. Home rule will:

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Give county government more authority over local issues,

Provide more timely local decision-making, free from dependence on when the General Assembly is in session,

Expand accountability to the citizens by increasing transparency of the legislative process and increasing opportunities for citizen input,

Give citizens the ability to change local government by amending the charter if needed to respond to pressures brought about by such issues as development and growth management, and

Give citizens the right of referendum on matters of local legislative action.

Since August 2007, a draft charter has been read by hundreds of citizens. Presentations have been made to dozens of local civic and political organizations. Hundreds of comments have been received related to that draft. As a result of those comments, the Charter Board made changes to the August draft. Overwhelmingly, the comments expressed opposition to any system of election of councilmembers that involved the establishment of districts. The citizens advocated an at-large election of a County Council. In light of the number of such comments, the charter board revised its draft to provide for at-large election.

Adoption of charter home rule will give the citizens a new right: Referendum. With this right, citizens will have the right to challenge legislative action, by collecting a sufficient number of signatures. The citizens of Washington County responded favorably to this right. The feedback that the charter board received was to make it easier to bring issues to referendum. In response to this feedback, the final proposal reduces the issues that are exempt from referendum and makes it easier to bring issues to referendum by reducing the number of required signatures.

Besides creating referendum and establishing greater local autonomy on issues of a strictly local nature, this charter makes another significant change in the organization of county government.

The charter board was concerned about the current system of five commissioners. It is difficult for five individuals to thoroughly know the issues being discussed by the county's more than 50 boards and commissions and to also know the details of local community issues. Individuals in the southern and western parts of Washington County also expressed concern that they had not been represented on the Board of County Commissioners in more than 30 years. Research suggested that there was merit to this argument.

These two concerns were addressed by increasing the size of the County Council from five to seven . With seven councilmembers, the workload would be spread over more individuals. In addition, research also indicated that, in recent elections, the citizens in some areas of the county who felt they were underrepresented would have elected councilmembers. The charter board felt that the additional cost of two councilmembers' salary of $30,000 each out of a budget in excess of $309 million was a cost-effective investment for improved local government.

The board also received a significant amount of feedback relating to issues that a charter may not address. For instance, the charter may not give its citizens a right of recall to remove elected officials mid-term or a right of initiative to create local laws. The charter also may not set the salaries of the councilmembers.

We also encountered a fair number of myths relating to charter government. For example, the council may not, under charter home rule, create new taxes. The council will only be able to adopt purely local laws. All other laws will continue to be adopted by the General Assembly.

Charter will allow our local laws to be made here in our county under the eyes of all county residents. The County Council is required to publish notice of these proposed laws in a local paper and to hold a public hearing prior to adopting such laws.

Most laws that are adopted by the council are also subject to referendum if a sufficient number of citizens object to the law as passed. This process is much more open to the citizens of Washington County and results in increased accountability of our elected officials.

On behalf of the Charter Board of Washington, we thank the citizens of the county for the feedback they provided to us over the last few months. The charter that has resulted is a consensus document drawn from the wide range of opinions and suggestions offered by many over the last 10 months.

The charter is available at www.charterboard.org and will be available at the branches of the Washington County library as of December. The board urges the charter's adoption by the citizens of Washington County on Feb. 12.

Jeanne Singer is the chair of the Washington County Charter Board.

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