Washington County home-rule advocate drumming up support

January 10, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY - With just one month to go before Washington County voters decide on the issue of home rule, Jeanne Singer has hit the campaign trail.

The former chairwoman of the county's charter board has become one of home rule's strongest advocates in recent weeks, speaking almost daily to local groups in an effort to drum up support for the 15-page charter that would change the way Washington County is governed.

"We thought it was important to get out to help people understand," Singer said, referring to the Charter Board Steering Committee made up of several former charter board members. "It's a hard issue to invoke passion in."

By Wednesday morning, Singer had spoken at five events in three days and had three more planned for the week.

Tonight, Singer will debate another former charter board member, Tom Berry, on the merits of home rule at an event hosted by Citizens for Protection of Washington County.


County voters will decide whether to approve home rule Feb. 12, when the charter will be placed on the Primary Election ballot.

The charter would change the county's governing body from a five-member county commission to a seven-member county council, and would give that council more freedom to enact local laws and borrow money.

Home rule also would give citizens the right to challenge some laws passed by the council by taking them to referendum, or public vote.

Proponents of home rule say it will give local elected officials and citizens more power to govern themselves.

Opponents have argued that it would upset a system of checks and balances provided by the Maryland General Assembly, which currently has to approve local legislation for the county commissioners.

On Tuesday, Singer spoke to a crowd of local business and civic leaders gathered at Duffy's on Potomac for the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's monthly Eggs and Issues meeting.

Singer addressed several of the criticisms that have been levied against the charter, such as the argument that the number of signatures required to bring an issue to referendum is too high.

The charter requires 7 percent of registered voters to sign a petition before a law can be challenged with a public vote. Today, that would be about 5,600 signatures.

"A lot of people think that number is too high, but we think it's doable," Singer said.

She noted that several other Maryland counties governed by home rule require 10 percent of voters to sign a petition for referendum.

Singer also defended a section in the charter that would allow the county council to control the amount of long-term debt it issues.

The charter would allow the council to take on general revenue debt up to 5 percent of the county's tax base. Singer said that number is lower than the 15 percent limit set by the state.

"And practically, Wall Street would not let them borrow more than about 2 percent," Singer said.

She said the county's long-term, general revenue supported debt is currently at about 1.2 percent.

Two previous attempts to switch Washington County to home rule failed.

In 1977, a proposal failed with 38 percent of the vote, Singer said. Another proposal in 1988 failed with 45 percent of the vote, she said.

But Singer said she thinks times have changed. Of the eight Maryland counties with commissioner forms of government, five are considering a change to home rule, Singer said.

"If this isn't passed here next month, we could be one of the only governments in 2010 with a 1700-era form of government," Singer said.

For more on charter home rule in Washington County, go to and click on "Home Rule Charter Information."

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