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Washington County residents will have to petition for home rule

State Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. says he won't be leading the charge

July 16, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

If there is public support for altering Washington County’s governmental structure, residents — or possibly those seeking election in 2014 — will need to show it in the form of a petition in the coming months.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners took no action Tuesday morning on a request by state Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. that the five commissioners appoint a board to draft the framework for charter home-rule government.

“Taking no action gives the people the opportunity to take the action and get the signatures, and then bring that to the commissioners (to) affirm a charter board,” Commissioner Jeff Cline said after the meeting.

Myers, R-Washington/Allegany, sent letters and announced his support for the proposed shift to charter home-rule government in June, but Tuesday was the first time the county’s elected body has publicly discussed the matter as a whole.

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A charter home-rule structure would enable the county to make many more decisions locally without oversight from Annapolis, bringing government closer to the people, Myers has said.

“With the fast pace that we live, we have issues. We have to go to Annapolis and ask them if we can raise the fee on dog licenses, or can we correct some flaw we have in sidewalk maintenance” for example, Myers said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.

There have been three previous attempts to establish charter home rule in Washington County — in 1977, 1988 and 2008 — but all were defeated by voters.

“If one of the intents of charter is to keep people close to the government, maybe that’s a good reason to put it out to petition,” Commissioner William B. McKinley said during the board’s discussion.

Cline said he has remained neutral on the idea of charter government because he has heard more about “weeds and taxes ... and more concerns about our citizens here.”

“The No. 1 thing I’m hearing is: What do we need to change?” Cline said. “Therefore, allowing it to go out to referendum, to get the signatures — if the people want it, we will gladly appoint that charter board.”

To get the issue on the 2014 election ballot, a total of 5 percent of the county’s registered voters would have to sign a petition in favor of the commissioners appointing the charter board.

The charter board would come up with a charter proposal, and the measure would be placed on the ballot.
Kaye Robucci, director of the Washington County Board of Elections, said the county had 87,291 registered voters as of the beginning of July, which puts the target for needed signatures at about 4,365.

In response to the commissioners’ decision not to act Tuesday, Myers said he thought the board would “at least let the people once again turn their thumbs up or down.”

He said he would not be leading the charge for the petition.

“I don’t do that,” said Myers, who has said he will not seek a fourth term in the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014. “I believe our current board of county commissioners are elected by the people to make these decisions for the people, whether we like it or not.”

The movement could come from citizens who support a change to charter home rule or potential candidates running for the five open county commissioner seats that choose to run on a platform favoring charter home-rule government, much like what took place in Frederick County, Md., in 2012.

If enough signatures are collected, a board of five, seven or nine members would be appointed by the county commissioners to develop the framework of a charter, then a ballot question would be placed on either the primary or general election ballots in 2014 to determine whether the public supports the move.

The commissioners would have 30 days from the time the petition is presented to appoint the charter board.

However, additional petitions could be submitted if the public challenges one or more members appointed to the board, which could alter the election ballot on which the question ultimately appears, Robucci said.

The 2008 question appeared on the primary election ballot, she said.

Primaries for the upcoming gubernatorial elections are set for June 24, 2014, with the general election slated for Nov. 4, 2014.

Eleven counties in Maryland have charter home rule or have voted to adopt such a form of government.

Six counties have code home rule, while six others have a county commissioner form of government.

In charter home-rule government, typically there would be a county executive and a county council, rather than five county commissioners, as there are in Washington County.

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