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Charter home rule debated

January 31, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- When they entered the Kepler Theater at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Robert Kidwell, JoEllen Harshman and Lona Mastiano had no idea how they felt about charter home rule.

Two hours later, they had all made up their minds.

Kidwell, 25, of Keedysville and Harshman, 24, of Boonsboro said they like the idea of local bills being handled locally by a county council, which would be one of the results of the proposed charter.

Mastiano, of Hagerstown, said she was worried the charter might result in higher taxes.

"I don't know if that's true, but if it is, that's the last thing I want," Mastiano said.

About 200 people attended a forum on charter home rule Wednesday evening at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

The forum, which was sponsored by The Herald-Mail, Antietam Cable TV and Hagerstown Community College, featured six speakers who debated the pros and cons of the charter, which would change Washington County's form of government from a five-member board of commissioners to a seven-member county council.


The charter would give that council more power to pass local legislation and borrow money than the commissioners currently have, and would give residents the right to bring some bills to referendum, or public vote.

The forum was moderated by University System of Maryland at Hagerstown Executive Director David Warner.

The speakers, which included two county commissioners, a state delegate and three members of the former charter drafting board, answered audience-submitted questions for more than an hour.

Proponents of the charter, including County Commissioner James F. Kercheval and former charter drafting board members Jeanne Singer and Brien Poffenberger, said it would allow local government decisions to be made locally.

"This debate is about taking power from Annapolis and returning it to Washington County," Poffenberger said.

The opponents of the proposed charter, which included Del. Christopher B. Shank, County Commissioner William J. Wivell and former charter board member Tom Berry, argued that the document will take power away from local citizens and concentrate it in the hands of elected county officials.

"The charter takes away the checks and balances of the current system. It gives too much power not to the people but to the government," Shank said.

The opponents' side began by arguing that the charter will result in higher taxes.

Wivell said charter counties can enact special taxing areas for libraries, fire and ambulance companies and commercial districts. He said smaller fees and taxing districts can also be created.

Shank said the average tax amount per capita in charter counties is more than $600 higher than Washington County's tax rate.

In response, Singer said the tax rates in charter counties such as Montgomery and Prince George's are a function of their size and location, not their structure.

Kercheval noted that the commissioners have the power to raise taxes.

"We could raise property taxes right now. Not once have we done that. And that's representative of the people we elect," Kercheval said.

The arguments at Wednesday's debate often centered not on charter government itself but on the specifics of the charter document that has been proposed.

Both Wivell and Berry have said they are in favor of charter government but do not agree with the charter that has been drafted.

Wivell said the charter would require too many signatures to take issues to referendum and allow the county to take on too much debt.

"Fear has driven the language in this charter. Fear of giving voters power over their government. That is the biggest disappointment in this draft," Wivell said.

Berry said he would have liked provisions in the charter to protect residents from eminent domain abuse and would also have preferred a lower number of signatures required for referendum.

Under the draft charter, 7 percent of the county's voters would have to sign a petition to take issues to referendum.

"That number assures that we will never see a referendum in Washington County," Shank said.

Poffenberger said referendum occurs in charter counties in Maryland about once every 18 months and that referendum requirements in other charter counties range from 5 percent to 10 percent.

To read the proposed charter, go to

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