Patriotic appeal ruled in Garrett vote

July 10, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

OAKLAND -- The group that led the effort to change rural Garrett County's form of government appealed to voters' patriotism with images of drum- and fife-playing American Revolutionaries in print and radio ads.

"They had to fight!" exclaimed a flier promoting change from commission to charter home rule. "We have only to vote. Make July 7 Independence Day for Garrett County."

The opposition also used a patriotic message, warning residents in a radio ad that "120 years of Garrett County history are on the line" and that the potential for higher taxes and bigger government would be "staggering" if charter was approved.

Residents didn't need much convincing, however. They voted down charter government Tuesday, 4,167 to 734, not counting absentee ballots. Turnout was 42 percent, matching turnout for the March primary.

But the opposition, Garrett County Committee for Good Government, left nothing to chance, running an aggressive campaign. Charter would have replaced three $25,500-a-year commissioners with five $15,000-a-year council members and an appointed administrator.

"Small counties don't need charter home rule, and folks here realize that," said Ralph Burnett, spokesman for the opposition and an attorney in Oakland, the county seat of 1,741. "I thought we'd win, but not by such a large margin. The population was energized to turn out."

A charter is a constitution for government outlining its structure, powers, duties and limits. It confers from the state to local jurisdictions the authority to enact certain laws.

Eight Maryland counties have charter government, which typically involves a council and an elected executive or appointed administrator.

Carroll County, the only jurisdiction in the Baltimore region still operating under commission government, will have a referendum charter, probably on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Dorothy Leighton, chairwoman of Garrett County Citizens for Charter Government, advises the counterpart group in Carroll to address the issue of government costs under charter "right away."

"Heavens no, it wouldn't cost more," she contends. "But that's what the opposition was saying."

Many voters in the mountainous Western Maryland county of 28,000 didn't buy Ms. Leighton's argument. Almost half of Garrett's voting-age population is older than 45, remembers growing up with the three-commissioner system and has faith in it.

Garrett's charter proposed a council elected by district. Now, two commissioners live in Oakland, leaving most of the 662-square-mile county without direct representation, said charter proponents.

The charter would have outlined procedures for forming a budget and disclosing expenditures, established an ethics code, allowed residents to petition laws to referendum and strengthened accountability overall.

The charter would have provided for an "open government, which we haven't had for decades," said John E. Hinebaugh, 70, a sixth-generation Garrett County resident who chaired the board that wrote the charter. "Some commissioners have run a very closed shop."

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