Push For Charter Change Is On Committee Hoping To Make It A Referendum On The 1992 Ballot

December 02, 1990|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Staff writer

Only 20 years ago, Carroll County was a sparsely populated, agricultural county on the fringes of metropolitan Baltimore. There was no Northwest Expressway, no congested Route 140 or Route 26, only open field after open field.

Today's Carroll is the fastest-growing of the five Baltimore metropolitan-area's counties, but it remains the only one governed by a three-member Board of Commissioners.

But one group of county business and civic leaders is trying to change that, saying that government here needs to evolve to keep pace with that growth.

"Don't think that we are attacking the County Commissioners," said Charles O. Fisher Sr., a Westminster attorney and chairman of the seven-member Carroll Charter Government Organizational Task Force. "But the job is getting to be too much for three part-time people. It is growing so rapidly, and we need to act right now."

The charter system is one of the state's three methods of county government that could replace Carroll's Board of Commissioners.

Charter government -- with an elected council and executive or appointed manager -- is used in Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, Montgomery, Prince George's, Talbot and Wicomico counties, and Baltimore City. Four counties have code home rule and the remaining 11 -- all outside the metro area -- are under the commissioner form of government.

This third attempt at change comes as issues of growth, traffic, crime, and the economy are becoming increasingly complex, Fisher said.

"The time to write a charter is when we don't absolutely have to have one," he said. "But we are going to need one, and we should be ready."

Under charter government, the county would gain autonomy and power. The county could make and pass laws, as Carroll's eight municipalities do, rather than relying on the General Assembly's 90-day session.

The charter government committee hopes to have a charter question on the ballot by November 1992. But not all in Carroll's business and political communities hope the committee succeeds.

Commissioner President John L. Armacost, long a foe of any kind of home rule, doesn't see the need to change the form of government.

"In most cases, throughout the country, you'll find commissioner-type governments," he said. "The commissioner type of government, in my mind, is much less expensive and more efficient."

Both Elmer C. Lippy Jr. and Donald I. Dell -- who become commissioners tomorrow -- have denounced a move toward home rule and instead favor making board members spend more time in the office.

"Charter has two layers; it's more expensive," said Commissioner Julia W. Gouge, who begins her second term tomorrow. "Commissioners are closer to the people, there's no distance between the executive and the citizens this way."

The county's three new commissioners will earn $30,000 a year (up from $22,000) for their part-time duties. By comparison, the seven County Council members in Anne Arundel earn $23,000; the seven in Baltimore County, $30,900; and the five in Howard, $27,500.

The pay for a full-time elected county executive in Anne Arundel is $75,000; in Baltimore County, $85,000; in Howard, $80,000; and in Harford, $49,770.

Salaries vary with county size and complexity of their duties.

Council members in Talbot -- an Eastern Shore county with less than a third of the population of Carroll -- earn $9,000 a year; their counterparts in Wicomico County are paid $14,500.

In the two previous attempts at change, Carroll countians voted to retain the commissioner form.

In 1968, a drive for charter government -- spearheaded by attorney Fisher -- was narrowly defeated by the voters.

And in 1984, Commissioners Jeff Griffith and William V. Lauterbach Jr.

brought to the voters the question of code home rule -- a modified version of home rule, in which the current form of government would remain intact but would be given legislative authority.

That measure was defeated by an almost 3-to-1 margin, and was opposed by the Carroll County Farm Bureau and Carroll's Republican Central Committee.

This third push for charter has the support of the League of Women Voters, which has advocated a change in government here for the last 10 years. It was the league which organized the charter committee this spring.

The group is trying to get the 2,500 signatures needed to compel the commissioners to appoint a committee to write a charter.

"Charter government is a better form of government," said Elizabeth Gehr, league president. "It gives you more representation from around the county, and it gives you one person who is directly accountable to everyone.

"It brings democracy closer to home."

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