In Frederick Co., voters prefer their government small

November 07, 1991|By Thom Loverro | Thom Loverro,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FREDERICK -- The image of Frederick County as the suburban little brother of neighboring Montgomery County was rejected Tuesday by longtime county residents who feel the way their government has operated here for several hundred years is just fine.

By more than a 3-to-1 margin, voters turned down the proposed home rule charter that would have replaced Frederick County's five-member commission with a county executive and five-person county council.

Some 13,000 registered voters issued a reminder that, for all the glitz and growth of the Interstate 270 corridor, Frederick County is still rural in many ways and reluctant to make changes.

"I don't think that Frederick County voters felt as if they were ready for a change," Betty Floyd, a disappointed charter supporter, said yesterday.

Such supporters claimed longtime residents of the county were the ones who turned out in Tuesday's special election. It drew about 27 percent of the county's registered voters, a larger turnout than election officials had expected.

The typical new Frederick County resident -- the young, well-educated urban transplant from the Washington suburbs -- stayed away from the polls, according to another charter supporter.

"Where were all those newcomers to the county?" asked Wilbur Ford, a member of the county planning commission. "Where were all those people that say they want change, that they want progressive government? Why weren't they out here voting?"

Eight Maryland counties -- six in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas and two on the Eastern Shore -- now operate under charter home rule. A ninth county, Carroll, has launched its third attempt in 30 years to revoke its commissioner government. Its last such effort, in 1984, was defeated by Carroll County voters 2-to-1.

Carroll's commissioners recently appointed a board to draw up a constitution for a charter government that probably would be submitted to referendum in a special 1993 election. About 3,000 Carroll voters petitioned for such a change.

Under the proposed home rule charter defeated in Frederick County, one similar to those in metropolitan counties such as Montgomery, an elected county executive would have overseen daily government operations while a county council served as the legislative branch.

Residents who supported the charter argued that Frederick County, where a 30 percent growth in 10 years has raised the population to about 150,000, is now big enough to join the home rule club.

They said a full-time elected leader was needed as well as the power to pass laws locally. Under the old commissioner system, most county laws must be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.

John Ashbury, a weekly newspaper columnist here and president of Frederick County Taxpayers in Action Inc., a citizens' watchdog group, said he agreed that Tuesday's election brought out longtime county residents in greater numbers than a new wave of people who arrived during the last decade.

"I went to five polling places on Tuesday, and I didn't see anyone voting who was under 40 years of age," Mr. Ashbury said.

Opponents of the charter claimed it would lead to more bureaucracy and less constituent service by elected officials. They mounted a strong anti-charter campaign in the few days leading up to the election.

Those fears -- unfounded ones, charter supporters contend -- were said to have brought the crushing defeat, as residents used to calling county commissioners with their problems fretted over coping with the unknown of a new system.

"I think people voted out of fear," said Patty McGill, a member of the board that drew up the proposed charter. "People didn't read the document or understand it."

But Mr. Ashbury said it was the document itself that helped charter opponents. "The charter proponents never really pointed to anything that was wrong with the commissioner form of government, and the people who were opposed to the charter had an advantage, in that we had a document that we could study and take apart," he said.

Opponents hammered away particularly at the "non-interference clause," which spells out that under home rule county employees would work for the county executive and not council members. The opponents said this would reduce the amount of constituent service that council members could provide.

Supporters argued otherwise, but their message did not appear to be heard.

"People here still like the idea of local government," said Louise Snodgrass, the Burgess of Middletown and a charter opponent. "They like the idea of seeing their elected officials at the store, the barber and places like that and to feel that it's still a hands-on type of government."

Home rule

These eight Maryland counties adopted a home rule charter system of government between 1948 and 1973:

Anne Arundel County..... 1964

Baltimore County........ 1956

Harford County.......... 1972

Howard County........... 1968

Montgomery County....... 1948

Prince George's County.. 1970

Talbot County*.......... 1973

Wicomico County*........ 1964

* While Talbot and Wicomico counties do not have elected county executives, they are governed by county councils and appointed county administrators.

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