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Government isn't broken enough

February 10, 2008|By JOE LANE

Until a couple of months ago, like the majority of residents, I had never heard of, or discussed the need for charter home rule in Washington County. Local politics are my hobby. I read the papers and communicate with a broad network of people involved with local politics. I am naturally suspicious when, out of nowhere, I find this county deciding to change forms of government when no outcry for this change existed.

In this article, I will show that there is no need for charter home rule to solve any problem of local concern. Furthermore, there are hidden and unanticipated risks in a charter home rule form of government. Our current form of government, while not perfect, is a known quantity and is capable of providing for all the needs of its residents.

Proponents of charter home rule claim that this form of government allows greater citizen control than our current commissioner form. My experience with charter home rule is exactly the opposite. I lived in Prince George's County 20 years ago under charter home rule while Parris Glendening was county executive. Citizens were completely shut out of government. Developers had a majority on the county council. They raised taxes, cut special deals for developers, let the school system crumble while crime increased and the quality of life in Prince George's County continued to deteriorate. There was no recourse, no place to appeal. Attempts to preserve farmland, parkland or historic properties were futile.

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Consider the counties that currently have charter home rule. What do they have in common? The counties east of the Chesapeake Bay are characterized by out-of-control development. Those on the eastern shore are controlled by poultry interests (not farmers). In all cases, small moneyed interest groups control the levers of power, not citizens.

Under charter home rule, there would be no meaningful restraint on county level economic development schemes. Under this charter, a majority of four councilpersons could sign this county up for an endless array of well-intentioned and/or half-baked economic development schemes, costing tens of millions of dollars, without any recourse for the citizens of this county. The proponents of charter home rule defend this concentration of power by saying, "Citizens can take decisions they disagree with to referendum."

The referendum process is a farce. Items you would want to take to referendum are exempted under Section 307-a of the charter! These include "annual budgets," "tax increases," "revenue bonds or similar debt," "short-term borrowing," "long-term general service obligations or similar debts." In other words, how they spend our money or use our credit card is not subject to referendum.

Second, it is almost impossible for an average group of citizens to collect enough signatures to bring anything to referendum. I suppose, if you were very wealthy, you could hire an army of people to collect signatures. A business interest could take anything to referendum if the financial benefit of doing so were sufficient. The referendum process, like this charter proposal, favors moneyed interests over citizens.

Proponents claim we need charter home rule so decisions can be made locally without involving the state delegation. They claim that the delegation should not be burdened with local "nuisance legislation" and also would be prevented from meddling in county level business. Enabling legislation would be a simplest way to solve the "nuisance legislation" once and for all.

As for meddling in local affairs, it is true that the meddling of the delegation has at times cost the taxpayers.

The school and road funding crisis would not exist today if Del. Chris Shank had not led the charge to limit the excise tax to 25 cents per square foot. This has left the county tens of millions of dollars behind in school and road construction dollars. While I agree that our delegation does not serve this community well, this is an argument for electing someone who represents Washington County rather than his own partisan political self-interest. This is not a reason to throw out the checks and balances of our current system and support charter home rule. We must remember it was the delegation that brought us the property tax cap when the county refused. The delegation has saved this county more than once from our commissioners. If we had a delegation that was representative and cooperative, there is not a single project this community needs that could not easily and expeditiously be completed.

In closing, our current form of government has stood the test of time and while not perfect, is not broken enough to justify this charter. This charter gives a small group of people too much control over the public bank account and credit card without any check or balance. Charter home rule does not solve a single problem that cannot be solved through our current commissioner form of government. I urge my fellow citizens to vote against charter home rule.

Joe Lane is a Smithsburg resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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