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State constitution doesn't okay referendum in all cases

December 19, 2007|By DAVID HANLIN

This letter is in response to Tom Berry's letter published in Monday's Herald-Mail expressing his opposition to charter home rule over the issue of referendum. He states that "we already have this right under the Maryland Constitution, Article XVI." He rightfully states that the constitution gives counties the right of referendum on ordinances related to purely local issues. But he fails to say that this right extends only to ordinances passed by the General Assembly.

In reality, Mr. Berry's argument demonstrates clearly why charter home rule is essential to the people of Washington County, even as it applies to referendum.

Simply put, the Maryland Constitution creates the right of referendum for its citizens on issues that have been passed for us by the General Assembly.

However, there are some items of a purely local nature that already have been delegated to the county commissioners. One such example is zoning and comprehensive planning. Under a commissioner form of government, as we currently have in Washington County, citizens have no constitutional referendum right over these issues.

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He described rural landowners who, through "downzoning," lost $100 million in equity. Under his scenario, with charter rejected, the only way these landowners could challenge the comprehensive plan is through the courts. If Washington County had the right of referendum as established in the charter, then the comprehensive plan could have been challenged through referendum.

The real benefit of charter home rule is that a far wider range of purely local issues would be decided here. Only through charter can these issues be brought to referendum.

Since the addition of Article XVI to the Maryland Constitution, no county with commissioner form of government has been extended the right of referendum over local ordinances passed by its commissioners. The state created home rule and gave home rule counties the right of referendum over a wide range of issues, but not commissioner counties.

In essence, the General Assembly has had the opportunity, since 1915, to give commissioner counties such as Washington County the right to referendum over issues that have been delegated to our county commissioners. But they have not done so. Those delegates who oppose charter home rule should tell citizens why we have been denied this right.

As a member of the charter board, Mr. Berry did, in public session, express his dissatisfaction with the signature threshold of 7 percent of registered voters.

He might be right. But he also knows that under charter, he would have the power to try to get that signature threshold reduced. No other form of government in Maryland gives him or any other citizen the right to try to change their local government.

He should endorse charter home rule and work to change the signature threshold after it is passed on Feb. 12. If he had his way and his opposition to charter prevails, then he would have the citizens:

1. Forego referendum on key issues such as the comprehensive plan and zoning and,

2. Not be able to change local government to better meet their needs and respond to local pressures.

I, for one, urge everyone to become acquainted with charter home rule. I am confident that when the citizens have a better understanding they will join me in supporting this historic and positive change for Washington County.

Vote yes for charter home Rule. It's your government and your choice.

David Hanlin
Hagerstown

(Editor's note: The author is a member of the Charter Board of Washington County.)

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