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Backing charter? Then pay attention

December 16, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

Apart from the speculation about whether Del. John Donoghue would attend - he didn't - the most interesting issue raised at Wednesday's breakfast meeting with Washington County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly was how the members stood on charter home rule.

The proposed charter, written by a citizen committee, will be voted on during the state's Feb. 12 primary. Its proponents say that it will relieve the delegation of dealing with numerous local bills - weed ordinances and the like - that shouldn't really occupy the legislature's time.

Del. Robert McKee, R-Washington, said he was supporting the charter, because many of the bills the county government wants have to be approved by people who don't live here.

"There's something in Annapolis known as 'local courtesy,'" McKee said.

That means that if a bill doesn't have statewide implications, lawmakers from other counties generally took the local delegation's word that it was what the folks back home wanted.

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I say "took" because, according to McKee, "The General Assembly doesn't tend to be as courteous as it once was."

Local needs - the University System of Hagerstown campus is just one issue that comes to mind - can be held hostage unless local lawmakers agree to support someone else's bill.

But the strongest argument against charter came from state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington.

"It's an idea whose time has not yet come," Munson said, adding that "it's being sold on the basis of false information."

Then came the key to Munson's opposition.

"When the county commissioners do something you don't agree with, you can come to me," Munson said. With charter, that avenue will be foreclosed, Munson said.

Is that true? Yes, the charter would require anyone who didn't care for a law passed by the new county council to petition it to referendum. But county government will still need the delegation's help on things such as bond bills.

In 2006, for example, the delegation agreed to sponsor bills to get the Hagerstown YMCA $400,000 for a new 9,000-square-foot youth and family gymnasium.

Discovery Station and the Hagerstown Pony League asked for $50,000 apiece to upgrade a 1950 elevator and to replace exercise equipment respectively.

It would be simple for Munson or someone else to tell such petitioners he can't or won't do anything until the city or county government comes around to his way of thinking.

But while that might send a new group of citizen lobbyists into action on Munson's behalf, it might also spark some resentment that the nonprofits in question were being used to fight a battle they had no real stake in.

But the key to Munson's argument for retaining his leverage over county government is that it gives citizens who weren't paying attention a chance at a "do-over."

Weren't paying attention? Didn't get your group organized in time? That's OK, because with the current system, you get a second bite at the apple.

The way it works now, the delegation has the best of both worlds. If it's a touchy subject, the delegation can insist that the commissioners deliver a proposal with all of the kinks worked out in advance.

That gives the delegation time to see if there is major opposition. If there is, the bill can be quietly killed in committee without any local person being blamed for its demise.

With charter, on matters unrelated to the county budget or taxation, the responsibility for most laws would remain with the county council and it would be a lot easier to know who to blame or praise.

But - and this is a big "but" - it would mean that citizens would have to pay closer attention to the people they elect. If the new county council were the last word on most local legislation, it might be dangerous to elect someone just because he or she had a well-known name or was famous for some other reason.

If charter passes, voters would have to consider whether the candidate had any knowledge of a budget bigger than that of the average household. If charter passes, voters would have to consider whether the candidate had ever worked with a group of volunteers and had been able to convince them to follow his or her lead.

If charter passes, voters would have to decide whether the candidate was a good communicator, able to explain his or her ideas to the public. And just as important, voters would have to decide whether the candidate understood that it was his or her responsibility to explain the issues to citizens.

That's a lot of work and I will admit that the county commissioners don't make it as easy as it should be. Their meetings are held, for the most part, on Tuesday mornings, when most people are at work. The audio is streamed on the Internet, but the live version is broadcast when most people are busy earning a living.

With charter, county residents could petition to change that, so that meetings could be held in the evenings and possibly be televised, as are those of the Hagerstown City Council.

The bottom line: The charter will give citizens more power, but with greater power comes greater responsibility. In this case, charter will make citizens responsible for paying attention, or for accepting the consequences of their inattention.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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