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It's our county government, not Baltimore's

January 27, 2008|By JOHN SCHNEBLY

Feb. 12 is primary election day in Maryland. On that date, the citizens of our community will have the opportunity to approve the adoption of charter home rule for Washington County. I believe a "yes" vote on this initiative will be a positive step to achieving more timely and efficient local government.

Under the present county commission form of government, even the most trivial and mundane local legislative issues must go to the Maryland General Assembly for consideration.

To get a sense of how tedious this process is, one needs only to look at some of the topics of discussion listed for consideration this year between our delegation and the county commissioners.

Included on this year's list for discussion were such things as revisions to the local electrical code, revising the job description for the county clerk, and a request to consider enabling legislation for regulation of parking by commercial trucks on public roads.

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Folks, I hope you agree with me that our delegates to the General Assembly have more pressing matters to deal with. Approval of charter home rule will allow decisions of these types to be done locally and quickly by the representatives of the 17,000 or so odd voters who, in recent history, have showed up to vote for county officials.

A majority of the jurisdictions in the State of Maryland have already come to the conclusion that home rule is the most expedient way to more efficient local government. Fifteen of the 23 counties in Maryland have now adopted some variation of home rule.

And if you think this is a phenomenon linked only to metropolitan counties, a review of the list of home rule counties will change your assumption. Included in the list of home rule jurisdictions are Allegany, Caroline, Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne's and Talbot counties.

In speaking with people around the community about this initiative, I do sense some fear of the unknown on the part of voters. Their biggest concern is that somehow the passage of the charter will invest the new county council with a nebulous array of new taxing options.

This is simply not the case. The ability of officials under the proposed charter to affect taxes compared with the power of the existing county commission to change them is completely neutral. The power to create authority for new taxes will remain solely with the General Assembly. As a result of this circumstance, our delegates to the General Assembly will remain important players in fiscal issues affecting the community.

A second concern seems to be that passage of the charter will create some type of immovable, autocratic government that will be difficult to change. Again, this is a misconception. The proposed charter does a number of things to give local citizens more control over the legislative process.

An important innovation in the document is the provision for referendum. The power for referendum creates a direct ability for the public to challenge or alter local laws they find inappropriate or distasteful.

Furthermore, if voters feel it is necessary to change the charter itself, they can avail themselves of the referendum process to petition for a charter amendment at any time. In any event, the proposed charter requires the creation of a mandatory review commission every 10 years to evaluate the suitability of the document.

The point here is that the charter has not been designed to be a static document. The panel that drafted it realized that as time goes by, new and unforeseen circumstances might arise that require different approaches to the way we govern. And with that in mind, they crafted a document that allows our citizenry a reasonable means of changing how our local legislative processes work.

The beauty of this is that we can effect change promptly, relying on local sentiment to drive our decisions.

Instead of counting on the blessing of the General Assembly, including, for example, a senator from the Eastern Shore or a delegate from Baltimore, we can rely on ourselves to call the shots. And I believe creating this ability is the best way to insure local, responsive government for the thousands of interested voters in Washington County.

John Schnebly is a former Washington County Commissioner.

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