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Charter home rule questions and answers

January 26, 2008

Question: What is charter home rule?

Answer: It is one of three types of county governments available in Maryland.

The other two are code home rule and commissioner.

Both home rule forms offer local governments greater freedom to enact local laws.

Under charter home rule, Washington County's governing document would be the proposed charter on the Feb. 12 ballot.

To read the proposed charter, go to www.herald-mail.com/images/draft_charter.pdf.

Q: What would change under charter home rule?

A: The county's governing body would change from a five-person board of commissioners to a seven-member county council.

That council would be able to pass local laws, which currently are sent to Annapolis for approval by the Maryland General Assembly.

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Washington County citizens would have the power of referendum under charter home rule. If they did not like a piece of legislation, they could repeal it with enough signatures -- in most cases, 7 percent of the county's registered voters.

Some issues, including budgets and short-term borrowing, would not be subject to referendum.

The council also would have more authority to issue some bonds and set fees and fines for civil infractions.

Q: What powers would a council not have?

A: Charter powers do not extend to the school system, the sheriff's office or the local courts. The local taxing authority would remain with the Maryland General Assembly. And liquor regulations and election procedures remain outside the domain of the charter.

Q: Who can vote on the charter home rule question?

A: All registered voters can vote on the charter home rule question Feb. 12.

Voters do not need to be registered with a party to vote on the charter.

Q: What percentage of the vote would be needed to pass the referendum?

A: A simple majority, or more than 50 percent, is needed to adopt charter home rule.

Q: When would the charter be enacted?

A: If passed, the charter would go into effect 30 days after the Feb. 12 election.

Q: What happens if voters do not approve the charter Feb. 12?

A: Washington County would retain its commissioner form of government.

By law, a new charter board cannot be created for 18 months after a charter is voted down.

Q: Would the commissioners be eliminated?

A: The five county commissioners would remain in office, but their titles would change to county councilmen. At the end of their terms, in 2010, seven council members would be elected.

Q: Would we have a county executive?

A: No. There is no provision under the proposed charter for a county executive. However, the charter could be amended later to include an executive.

Q: Would we keep a county administrator?

A: Yes. The title might change, but the responsibilities would remain the same.

Q: What would the council members earn?

A: At least until 2010, their salaries would stay the same. A county council would have the power to change its salary, but that change would not become effective until the next term. In effect, a county council would not be able to give itself a raise.

Q: Will my taxes go up?

A: A county council would have no more authority over taxes than county commissioners.

It could not create new taxes, but could raise or lower them within the limits set by the Maryland General Assembly. The commissioners also can do this.

Property tax rates would remain under the control of the General Assembly.

A county council would, however, have more freedom to enact fees or fines for civil infractions.

Q: What will happen to the excise tax?

A: The General Assembly is scheduled to change the county's excise tax this year.

A county council would have no more or less authority over the excise tax than the county commissioners.

Q: Can the charter change?

A: Yes. There are three ways the charter could be changed.

Citizens can request a new charter drafting board or, with enough votes, decide to abandon charter home rule in favor of code home rule or commissioner government.

In addition, the charter must be reviewed every 10 years by a charter review commission appointed by the council.

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