Washington County voters to choose their form of government

January 26, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

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WASHINGTON COUNTY -- In addition to voting for presidential and congressional candidates, Washington County voters will answer a question on this year's primary election ballot.

The referendum question asks voters: "Are you in favor of adopting the Home Rule Charter as proposed by the Charter Board for Washington County?"

But while it sounds simple, the meaning of that question -- and the implications of such a change -- are unclear to many people.

What is charter home rule?

On Feb. 12, voters will decide whether to approve a 15-page charter that, if passed, would become Washington County's governing document.

(To read a copy of the charter, go to

If voters approve the charter, the structure of Washington County's government would be changed from a five-member board of commissioners to a seven-member county council.

That council would no longer have to seek General Assembly approval to enact local legislation, as the county commissioners do now.

It also would be able to issue some bonds without state approval.

Under charter home rule, citizens would be able to bring some legislation to referendum, or public vote, if they did not like the outcome.

They also would have the opportunity to attend public hearings and read bills in the newspaper before they are passed.

With enough signatures, citizens could change the charter if they don't like it.

"Home rule means self-government over local affairs; local control over purely local subjects," wrote Victor K. Tervala in his book "Home Rule Options in Maryland."

The debate

The merits of the charter are not universally accepted.

Some argue that it would destroy a system of checks and balances between the county commissioners and General Assembly. Others are generally in favor of charter home rule, but say the charter that has been drafted falls short in some areas.

Some people have argued that the charter should include district representation and should have a lower number of signatures required for referendum.

Others say the charter should have included a provision for a county executive.

"Charter government is neither good nor bad," said Tom Berry, a former charter board member who opposes the document. "It's what this charter says that makes the difference."

What's different?

How would local government be different under the charter?

The charter would change Washington County government in the following ways:

  • It would replace the current five-member board of county commissioners with a seven-member county council.

    All council members would be elected at-large, and there would be no county executive (the administrative functions of government would stay with the council).

    If voters approve the charter on Feb. 12, the current county commissioners would remain in office until the end of their terms. Their titles would change, but the council would not be expanded to seven members until the next election in 2010.

  • The county council would be able to enact local legislation.

    Currently, if the county commissioners want to pass a law, they submit it to the Maryland General Assembly, which must vote on the law during its regular session. Some say this system provides checks and balances, while others say it is inefficient and cuts local voters out of the legislative process while allowing state delegates from other counties to vote on Washington County bills.

    Under the charter, the county council would be able to pass local legislation on its own.

    Laws affecting local government services, planning and zoning, administration procedures and other local issues would become matters for the county council to legislate.

    While the council would have no more authority over taxes than the county commissioners do, it would have greater ability to raise, lower and enact fees.

    The council would be able to enact legislation for 45 days in a year. Those days would not have to be consecutive.

  • The charter would give county residents the power of referendum, or public vote, over some matters.

    Under home rule, citizens who do not like a decision their council makes can overturn it with enough votes.

    In order to bring most issues to referendum, a petition signed by 7 percent of the county's registered voters must be submitted. Today, that would be about 5,600 voters.

    Some argue that this number is too high, although it is lower than the level required in all but two of Maryland's charter counties.

    Referendum would not apply to all legislation. Budgets, taxes, short-term borrowing and revenue bonds would not be subject to referendum.

    Long-term bonds could be challenged, but only with a petition signed by 15 percent of the county's voters.

    In addition, all laws would have to be published before and after passage, and public hearings would have to be held prior to passing legislation.

  • The council would be able to issue local bonds.

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