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A valid change, perhaps, but not an answer to the real problem

February 10, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

It's interesting to watch members of the Washington County legislative delegation beat up, bloody, fight, give the silent treatment, pout and reduce each other to tears - and then point to the citizens of Washington County and say, "You are too childish to govern yourselves."

I mean gee whiz, this whole dust up over a fire-marshal bill, which wasn't even a fight over the bill itself, but an argument over who should file the bill, makes YouTube seem about as over-the-top as C-Span.

And then in old business, we have Del. Chris Shank offering to bury the hatchet with Del. John Donoghue, but Donoghue was nowhere to be found until later in the week when he said he harbored no ill will and it's not an issue anyway, since the two seldom cross paths in Annapolis. So I guess it's like a de facto peace warrant.

After all this nonsense, the fact that home rule isn't a slam dunk doesn't speak well for home rule. Admittedly, supporters of home rule have a delicate task, akin to Houston's shepherding of a manned space flight back into the earth's atmosphere.

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Too steep an angle - too much change in government - will scare voters and burn the issue to a crisp. Too shallow - not enough change so as to be a meaningful improvement - will bounce the issue back into the outer space of indifference.

In truth, I'd find it a lot easier to get excited about a governmental change - say, a city/county merger - that could promise some real efficiencies and cost savings, as opposed to home rule, much of which is incremental tedium. What, you mean to tell me we'll be able to instantly - instantly - be able to enact a three-word change in the plumbing code without going to Annapolis for approval? Be still, my leaking heart.

Speaking only for my twisted self, most of the things people find distasteful about home rule I like, and most of the things people like about home rule I find distasteful.

They say, as if it's a good thing, we will have seven county reps instead of five. How's that going to help? We can barely scrape together five literate candidates for any given office as it is.

They say, as if it's a good thing, that the people will have more control over local government. Which people? Those who are working for the benefit of Washington County, or those who are working for the benefit of themselves?

They say, as if it's a bad thing, that we will lose our system of checks and balances. No big loss, unless you like being checked by the city of Baltimore and balanced by Montgomery County.

They say, as if it's a bad thing, that the county will have more power to borrow money. I tend to buy former Commissioner John Schnebly's argument that borrowing to pay for an essential project today is cheaper than paying a greatly inflated price tomorrow.

The two points that you hear the most about, districts and referendums, are in my view straw men of little import but much emotion, used to bolster one side or the other. For example, I live in South County and I don't want my own representative. I want to fly under the radar, attracting as little attention as possible. Were it up to me, all seven members of the council would come from Pecktonville.

And referendum? Hey, if you want to take a leash law to popular vote, knock yourself out.

So, on the big question on everyone's mind: Will we pay more money under home rule? Short answer: Probably. The charter board says that the taxing authority of a county council is the same as the commissioners have now. But a letter from the Maryland Attorney General's office addressed to Shank begs to differ. The charter allows for special taxing districts used to fund special projects benefiting that district. "This authority is broader than that available to Washington County under current law, wrote Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe.

That said, this is not a "normal" tax, and my guess is that it would rarely by implemented, if ever. But there's also a greater authority to levy fees. We might get a fire tax sooner rather than later, although for better or worse, the county could adopt a series of user fees as an alternative to raising taxes in general.

I don't think it's honest to say our taxes would go way up, because even if the charter allowed it, this county does not elect spendthrifts. But neither is it honest to say we will notice no financial difference. Fees have a way of nickel and diming us, and you opinion of the subsequent (in theory) improvement in services depends on your ability to pay nickels and dimes.

All told, the main beneficiaries of home rule would be county bureaucrats and state lawmakers, because it would eliminate a lot of bothersome hoop-jumping.

Lawmakers, however, like to come home from the session and say, "We got every piece of local legislation passed." What they don't tell you is that most of this legislation involved weed ordinances and code definitions, and are rubber-stamped by the Assembly as a whole as a matter of courtesy.

Take away the local legislation and they look less like heroes, because we are bound to ask them, what meaningful thing did you do for us this session? One great thing home rule does do is increase accountability across the board, and for that reason alone, I plan to vote in its favor.

In the end though, no one need apologize for voting in favor of or against this charter. The people of this county can take pride that intelligent, civil arguments have been advanced by both sides. Home rule, as I see it, is a punch thrown in the direction of this county's propensity for electing inefficient politicians. There's some merit in that. Unfortunately, home rule does nothing to address that problem, and until we elect better leaders a new form of government will at best be a glancing blow.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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