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Are we ready for more responsibility?

November 25, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

To hear Jeanne Singer tell it, those who have talked to her about the proposed charter for Washington County are divided into two camps - those who don't want county government to have any more power and those who don't think the new system would give citizens enough say.

Singer, the chair of the board that drafted the charter, sat down recently with The Herald-Mail's Editorial Advisory Committee to talk about the proposal and why the board made some of the decisions it did.

The charter board began working on the document in December 2006, following requests by citizens who believed that the current commissioner form of government is outdated.

Those citizens expressed concern that on too many matters that are not of major importance, the commissioners must seek the approval of the county's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly.

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Because the General Assembly is only in session for 90 days, progress is sometimes held up while the commissioners wait for the January start of the regular session.

The charter board heard from citizens of the western and southern parts of the county, who felt they hadn't had any real representation on the Board of County Commissioners for 30 years. And so the charter board opted for a hybrid system, in which five members of the new county council would be elected by districts and two more would be elected at-large.

But the county's citizens apparently have long memories and some of the things that took place while the City of Hagerstown had a ward system are apparently still fresh in their minds, Singer said.

And so the charter board opted for a seven-member council, elected at-large, with the idea that a larger body would make it easier for voters in the southern and western parts of the county to elect someone from those areas.

Singer said another reason that the charter board rejected districts was that most of the county's population is concentrated in Hagerstown and its nearby suburbs. Drawing districts with equal numbers of voters, as required by law, would mean that most of the districts would take in part of those suburbs, leading to a Hagerstown-centric body, Singer said.

Why seek a seven-member body when a five-member group has always been the norm?

"We are one of the larger counties that has five members," Singer said, adding that "for a $300 million company, that's a lot of work to spread among five people."

While the proposed charter would give the county council more members, there would be more power for the people as well, Singer said.

As originally proposed, citizens would have been able to petition a law passed by the county council to referendum by gathering signatures from 10 percent of the county's registered voters. But Singer said that after feedback from citizens, the threshold was lowered to 7 percent, or about 5,600 signatures.

Not everything done by the council can be petitioned to referendum. Items that could not include: Budgets, taxes and short-term borrowing. Long-term borrowing can be petitioned to referendum, but would require gathering signatures from 15 percent of the county's registered voters.

Other important facts about charter include:

· Of Maryland's counties, nine have charter, six have what is called "code" home rule and eight have the commissioner form of government. Of those eight, Singer said, five are moving toward charter.

· Under Maryland law, there is no right of recall. If someone is elected, the voters cannot remove him or her.

· State law doesn't provide for the right of initiative. Citizens who want a new law passed must convince a member of the council to introduce it.

· The charter has severability, which means if that one part of it is challenged in court and found to be unconstitutional, the rest of the document will remain unaffected.

· Local ordinances must be passed by at least four members of the council.

· There is a provision for the passage of emergency legislation, which Singer said must also be approved by four council members. Such laws are effective for only six months, she said.

· The charter does not affect state law related to eminent domain or provide a mechanism for property owners to be compensated for "down zoning."

· The charter does not include a county executive, but could be amended later to provide one.

· Every 10 years, the charter will automatically be reviewed. Of the nine counties that have charter now, to date eight have amended their charters.

· The charter will be voted on in the Maryland primary on Feb. 12.

In September, The Herald-Mail noted in an editorial that in the previous two attempts to pass a local charter, many citizens opposed the change because they said they liked the fact that the delegation acted as a check on the commissioners.

Passing the charter would mean more power for the citizens, but would give them more responsibility, too. Electing someone just because their name is familiar might have serious consequences.

The hard question is: Are we ready be more mature and thoughtful about our choices, or do we still need the delegation to save us from the consequences of our bad decisions?

Bob Maginnis is the
editorial page editor of
The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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