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Hancock audience hears about home rule

February 05, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

HANCOCK - A town meeting Thursday night in Hancock, hosted by proponents of charter home rule, quickly turned into a debate when an opponent of the proposed charter spoke up during a question-and-answer session.

Charter advocates and former charter board members Jeanne Singer, Brien J. Poffenberger and David Hanlin began the meeting by talking for about an hour about the proposed charter.

Afterward, Tom Berry, also a former member of the charter drafting board, said he would be glad to tell the "other side of the story" if the audience members of roughly 30 people in the Hancock Middle-Senior High School "want to hear it."

The meeting, which had generated little audience participation to that point, became a series of questions, arguments and responses that addressed some of the core differences between the two camps.

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The proposed charter would change Washington County's form of government from a board of county commissioners to a county council. That council would have more power to pass local laws and borrow money than the commissioners currently have.

The charter would also give registered voters the power of referendum, or public vote, over some of the decisions the council made.

Berry, who has debated Singer and Poffenberger on several occasions, reiterated one of his key arguments against the charter Thursday night, saying the number of signatures required to petition a referendum is too high in the proposed charter.

The charter would require 7 percent of registered voters to sign a petition to bring most issues to referendum. The county budget, taxes and most borrowing would be exempt from referendum.

Berry said that number is too high and cited examples of previous petition drives in Washington County that fell far short of 7 percent of the county's registered voters, including a push to reverse the downzoning of some farmland.

Singer said the charter board wanted the number to be high enough that not every issue could be taken to referendum and said a county-wide bill would draw more signatures than the issues Berry used as examples.

Berry argued that the charter would allow the county council to create special taxing districts. Singer said the county commissioners already have that ability and have not exercised it.

Berry also argued that protections against eminent domain abuse should have been included in the charter.

"As a concept, charter has a lot going for it," Berry said. "But I'm opposed to this charter." He encouraged audience members to read the proposed charter as well as Section 25A of Maryland's Annotated Code, which lays out the express powers granted to charter counties.

Poffenberger said he appreciated Berry's comments but said many of the arguments against the charter have to do with policy, which should be left out of the charter.

"This is a structural document. It's a kind of constitution. We need to leave policy to the policymakers, the people we elect every four years," Poffenberger said.

The meeting was sponsored by the Hancock and Hagerstown-Washington County chambers of commerce.

All registered voters in Washington County, including independents, will be able to vote on the proposed charter during the Feb. 12 primary election.




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

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