"Are they trying to run you out of town and elect a new mayor," one of George J. Englesson's lunchtime regulars asked with a smile at TheNew Ideal Diner in Aberdeen.
Englesson, the third-term president of the Aberdeen Board of Commissioners, took the jibe in stride Tuesday, explaining that the town is just trying to keep up with the timesin its proposal to allow voters to elect a mayor for the first time.
The charter proposal setting up mayoral elections could have an important effect on Aberdeen government and politics.
But reaction last week ranged from indifference among residents to hostility from business owners.
The charter amendment, introduced Oct. 14 by a 3-year-old citizen's committee, would give Aberdeen residents a mayor/council system. Some independent authority would be granted to the newexecutive, notably the authority to fire rank-and-file employees. While an elected mayor's powers would increase, he would not be able tohire his own staff.
The town administrator would retain day-to-day responsibility for managing Aberdeen government's 100 employees. Currently, the mayor's duty is strictly to preside at town commissionermeetings and public ceremonies. The mayor, formally called board president, is chosen by the five commissioners from within their ranks but maintains no additional powers.
Under the proposal, the commissioners would have the option to either add or lose a member. The mostimportant duty of the elected mayor would be to break tie votes. Otherwise, the mayor would not vote.
In a town where voter turnout typically is limited to less than 30 percent, perhaps it should come asno surprise that a shrug was the most common reaction among a dozen people interviewed in the neighborhood surrounding Town Hall on West Bel Air Avenue.
"I can't imagine where people would be for or against it one way or the other," said Bob Marshall Jr., 25, a life-long resident and manager of the Harford Lanes bowling center.
But withonly about 4,500 eligible voters in a town of 13,000, he said the direct election of a mayor might have anti-democratic potential, especially considering how few residents vote.
In off years like 1991, when only two commissioners' seatsare up for election, voter participation is particularly low. Only 871 (or 20 percent) of the 4,449 registered voters cast their ballots in May.
The 1990 campaign for three commissioners' seats attracted 1,207 voters, a 27-percent turnout.
"You might get a few more voters attracted by the name of a mayor on the ballot," Marshall said optimistically.
He added that he always takes the opportunity to vote.
Packing away his bowling ball, Don Edwards endorsed the idea as a long-overdue reform.
"It's supposed to be a democracy," he said. "Why shouldn't the people have a voice in selecting the mayor?"
The commissioners would have advisorypower to approve or reject the hiring of department chiefs and appointments to town commissions.
If the charter measure passes, the mayor would be responsible for implementing new town laws such as the sediment-control ordinance adopted last month, Aberdeen administrator Peter Dacey said. The mayor would decide whether to immediately impose a fine on a violator or allow time to comply with the law.
The charter amendment follows the natural evolution of town government from a time when each commissioner had a specific responsibility like managing police, public works or planning and zoning, Dacey said.
"Right now, what we're doing is managing by committee," he said. "That's very hard to do in a government as large as Aberdeen's."
Edwards, a 70-year-old military retiree, said his only reservation was whether the new mayor would be held accountable for running the government.
"Is it somebody who could give more time to it or is it somebodywho says, 'I have to drop everything to go take care of business?' "he asked.
Between customers, Englesson said, "It would still be apart-time job with full-time responsibilities."
The job would still pay $6,000 a year.
A public hearing will not be scheduled on the charter amendment until the commissioners finish studying the proposal.
A charter amendment does not require voter approval. But anyone opposing the idea can collect signatures from 20 percent of registered voters within 40 days of passage to petition for a referendum onthe ballot next May.
There are some Aberdeen business owners so angry at the town government that they refused to comment on the prospect of determining the political fate of the mayor's post.
More than 125 Aberdeen business owners signed a petition forcing withdrawal of a bill two weeks ago which would have created an independent commercial management district authority backed by a mandatory $100 annualfee.
More than half the businesses that would have been required to pay the fee objected to the concept of an authority that would have money and power to influence cooperative snow removal, parking, lighting and security.