What Are Charter Opponents Afraid Of? Democracy?


October 13, 1991|By Jeff Griffith

The assembled multitude was eclectic.

Here a Republican, there a Democrat; here an citizen activist, there a central committee member;everywhere a non-partisan flavor.

The event was historic. The non-partisan coalition of citizens --the Committee for Charter Government -- presented a petition to the Board of County Commissioners. Nearly 4,000 of their fellow citizens had signed in support of a referendum on charter government.

Whilethe question of home rule has been on the ballot as recently as 1984, this action is the first time in memory that a formal request from the grass-roots level has brought the issue to the fore.

Most of the 100 or so gathered for the petition presentation had been involvedin the signature-gathering. Since last spring, they had conducted a classic eyeball-to-eyeball street campaign that included door-to-doorcanvassing and lobbying at shopping malls, fairs and carnivals all over the county.

Actually, the petitions presented to CommissionersElmer Lippy and Julia W. Gouge were not the original petitions the committee had prepared. A technical error in the first petition required that it be scrubbed.

So the committee set its collective jaw and started over. More than 2,800 voters had signed the first petition.When the committee's computer whiz, the amazing Bob Scott of Uniontown, compared the names with those on the second petition, he discovered only 400 duplicates. That means more than 6,000 voters had indicated their willingness to consider a charter for Carroll.

But neither supporters nor detractors of charter should place much confidence in those numbers as an indicator of the potential support for either charter government generally or for a given charter.

First, the commissioners must appoint a Charter Board of between five and nine registered voters. The board will have 12 months to create a charter and present it to the commissioners to be placed on the ballot. Meanwhilethe members of the original grass-roots coalition will attempt a voter-education effort.

Voter education will be the most important element in the success or failure of the charter movement, because evenas we speak, the lunatic fringe is most certainly mounting a disinformation campaign to harpoon home rule.

Here are some of the charges that the opponents of charter will exhume from past successful homerule bashings:

* The Charge: Charter government costs more than commissioner government.

* The Truth: The University of Maryland's Institute of Governmental Studies has studied this chestnut to death.The IGS finds that the costs of government are related not to the form of government but to the amount and types of services provided. Wedidn't need IGS to tell us that, but the lunatic fringe -- whose members live at both ends of the political spectrum out here -- doesn't believe common sense.

* The Charge: Home rule is some kind of liberal takeover.

* The Truth: All eight of Carroll's municipalities have home rule; all eight, in fact, have charters. Municipal governments in Carroll are rock-ribbed in their conservatism. The lunatic fringe likes to use the "L" word to scare the uninformed, small children and farmers. The basic model for many charters is the U.S. Constitution; a county charter would be the Carroll Constitution.

Today, we have no locally designed, locally adopted set of rules that govern us. Instead of our own constitution, we have the Public Local Laws of Maryland, subject to the whim of the Maryland General Assembly members, all but six of whom are well beyond our reach. The reality is that a charter is nothing more than a set of bylaws to direct governmentalactivities.

* The Charge: Home rule, especially the charter version, concentrates too much power in one person -- the county executive. Our current system has checks and balances to prevent that.

* The Truth: All Maryland charters severely restrict the power of the county executive, if the charter provides for one at all -- and some don't. All Maryland charters provide true checks and balances designed on the constitutional model: A legislative body, established under theconstitutional theory of separation of powers, passes all local lawsexcept in areas reserved to state control, such as criminal statutes.

Typically, the legislative body must approve appointments to boards and commissions and the like. But most charters provide for recall elections and referendums so voters can control their elected representatives. No such control exists under the commissioner form.

Most importantly, in writing and then voting on a charter, the citizenscan determine precisely how much control to retain unto themselves. That is why our ancestors threw the tea into the harbor.

The truthis that lunatic fringe is just plain scared of democracy.

And that's the way it is.

Readers of The Carroll County Sun are urged to submit letters and guest columns on topics of local interest to county residents.

Please send your comments to Letters or Guest columns, The Carroll County Sun, 15 East Main St., Westminster, Md. 21157-5052. You also may FAX your comments to us at 876-0233.

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