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Report: Opposition's distortion, distrust of county government led to failure of charter home rule

October 03, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- A ballot question on charter home rule in Washington County failed earlier this year in part due to truth-twisting by the opposition and voters' lack of trust in county government, according to a report released this week by a charter home rule advocacy group.

The eight-page report, compiled by Friends of Charter Home Rule, outlines the group's efforts during the charter campaign and speculates on why voters rejected the charter during the February primary election.

The group also makes recommendations in the report that it says would help another charter pass in the future.

"Before the lessons learned are lost to time, our committee felt we should put into the public domain the lessons learned from this defeat," David Hanlin, chairman of Friends of Charter Home Rule, said Tuesday during a public comment period at the Washington County Commissioners' weekly meeting.

The charter, which failed by a two-thirds margin, would have changed Washington County's governing body from County Commissioners to a county council. A council would have more power over local issues and the ability to pass legislation.

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The report acknowledges aspects of the proposed charter that angered some voters, including limits on referendum and the charter's failure to address eminent domain. The group suggests changing those sections if charter home rule is attempted in the future.

The report also attributes the charter's defeat in part to political opposition from Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, and state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, two vocal opponents of the charter.

The report accuses charter opponents of exploiting voters' fears about higher taxes, big government and the elimination of checks and balances to gather votes against the charter.

Specifically, the report says charter opponents unfairly linked growth and high taxes in Montgomery and Baltimore counties to the approval of charter government in those counties.

Hanlin said those counties have broad powers granted by the state that have not been given to other charter counties in Maryland.

"We felt it was misrepresented in the debate as if by having charter, you would get greater taxing authority," Hanlin said, referring to a debate on charter home rule at Hagerstown Community College's Kepler Theater.

Shank rejected those claims, saying voters opposed the charter simply because they didn't like it.

"The citizens of Washington County made an educated decision after reviewing the facts, and to suggest they were manipulated insults their intelligence," Shank said.

Munson could not be reached for comment.

The report also suggests that charter opponents' tactics were successful because "citizens of Washington County do not trust their county government," and says the county commissioners should work to improve their image among voters if charter home rule is to pass in the future.

Hanlin said he heard evidence of this as Friends of Charter Home Rule gave presentations on the charter before the election. He said tax increases passed by the state during the special session seemed to contribute to voters' apparent distrust of government.

"People were angry in general," Hanlin said. "They were angry about all the taxes coming down the pike from the state. They were angry and frustrated, and they blamed the county commissioners."

Washington County Commissioner William J. Wivell, who publicly opposed the charter, said the document should have given more power to county residents.

He did not, however, think its failure necessarily means people don't trust county government.

"Actually, I tend to think people trust more the local officials, as opposed to state and federal officials," Wivell said. "They are more closely scrutinized."

The report makes several recommendations for future charter efforts, including:

o Bringing it to a vote during a presidential general election, and no sooner than 2012.

o Gaining the support of all county delegation members.

o Making sure elected officials take an active role in advocating for the charter.

o Resolving the issue of whether to include district representation.

It also suggests the following changes to the charter document that failed in February:

o Reducing the threshold for referendum from 7 percent.

o Considering allowing referendum on budget issues.

o Incorporating the county's policy on eminent domain into the charter.

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