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Home rule can pass, but only with governmental limits

February 18, 2008|By THOMAS A. FIREY

Last Tuesday, Washington County voters soundly rejected a proposed county charter. The two-to-one margin was a more lopsided defeat than either of the previous home rule efforts in 1977 and 1988. To charter supporters who claim that local voters need to be empowered, those voters delivered a powerful message.

The defeat should baffle charter supporters: Who could oppose allowing county government to set local policies that now must be approved in Annapolis? Shouldn't local government decide local issues?

Moving government decisionmaking as close to the people as possible is a good idea. It increases decision makers' public accountability - few Annapolis lawmakers are politically or personally affected by their vote on a Washington County bill. But, judging from the charter debate, the idea of home rule wasn't at issue; most charter opponents said they support the idea of home rule. What they opposed - and what defeated this charter - was the undesirable county government this charter would have created.

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Drafting a good charter requires both giving government the power to do what people want and limiting government so it won't do what people don't want.

On that latter requirement, the proposed charter failed. It gave little power or protection to county residents: No meaningful restraint on taxes or spending, no property rights guarantees, no ability to bring many of the county's most important decisions - on budgeting, zoning, taxation or short-term borrowing - to public vote, and a practically unworkable referendum provision for other county decisions.

The proposed charter seemed to empower local politicians and bureaucrats, not county citizens. Faced with such a charter, voters wisely chose to stick with the current form of local government, which can make good policies after some work, rather than switch to a local government that could make bad policies with ease.

In August 2009, Washington County could again form a charter-writing committee. At that time, just as today, the idea of home rule will have merit. If a charter is to be adopted, it will need to give county citizens more control over their local government instead of giving local government more control over its citizens.

Thomas A. Firey, a Washington County native, is a policy scholar at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

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