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Why I oppose charter

January 25, 2008|By CHRISTOPHER B. SHANK

On the primary election ballot this February, the voters of Washington County will have an important choice to make about the future of how we as citizens interact with our county government.

The passage of charter home rule consolidates tremendous power in the hands of a new county council that will have unchecked authority to intrude into our lives, grow government and raise taxes.

Advocates of home rule haven't made the case for change. Some have suggested that Washington County's elected officials are not currently in charge of the county's destiny. Not true. All local legislation is assigned to the Washington County Delegation whose members are elected by the citizens of Washington County. The overwhelming majority of these requests have become law with little fanfare or interference from other areas of the state. Proponents argue that the county should be able to respond quickly to an issue that could emerge while the General Assembly is not in session. In my years as a legislator, we have never been confronted with such a burning issue.

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Advocates have also said that charter government would "free up" the delegation to focus on state issues by leaving local issues to the county council. Charter government is no guarantee of a smaller workload for the delegation, as charter and home-rule counties often put in more bills than commissioner counties.

The current arrangement that has served the taxpayers and citizens well provides much-needed balance in government. If citizens don't like the outcome at one level of government, they always have the option to go to another to express their concerns. Charter advocates at this point would say that if the county council passes something the voters don't like, they can petition it to referendum. I firmly believe that the amount of signatures required for referendum is set prohibitively high so that there will never be a successful referendum challenge. Under this charter plan, it would take 7 percent of the registered voters in Washington County to petition a local bill to referendum. That means collecting 5,600 valid signatures in up to 90 days.

During the 2006 election, there was an effort to petition two election law bills onto the ballot. Petitions were mailed to households, volunteers were well-mobilized and the entire effort was well-financed and organized. Despite that enormous effort, only 2,437 valid signatures were collected in Washington County. This so-called referendum provision is nothing more than a false hope.

If there were widespread problems with local bills not being enacted by the delegation, then I could see the argument to enact this charter.

Readers should know that voters in three out of the four Maryland counties that have considered home rule in the past few years have rejected it. It is inevitable that as government accrues more power, at whatever level, it will cost more to administer and infringe more on the rights of citizens. For these reasons and more, I would respectfully urge a "no" vote on this charter.

Christopher B. Shank is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, representing District 2B.

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