THE last county in the Baltimore metropolitan region still operating under a county commissioner form of government will have a chance this fall to trade the old vehicle for a newer model with more power under the hood.
Carroll County voters are expected to decide Nov. 3 whether they want to adopt a county charter, a home-rule document that would replace the three part-time commissioners with a County Council and full-time administrator. The move also would shift lawmaking power from the General Assembly to the new council.
The proposed charter is now getting finishing touches from a nine-member citizens' board that has spent nearly eight months studying how charter government works in other counties, conducting public hearings and drafting the document.
Charter government has been a non-starter in its last two Maryland tryouts. Frederick County voters rejected it in 1991, Garrett County voters this year. Carroll voters turned down a proposal to write a charter in 1968, and they rejected "code," another form of home rule, in 1984.
Charter government could well fail again in Carroll. Many residents feel that if the current system ain't broke, it doesn't need fixing. And many fear that charter government is synonymous with big government and higher taxes.
But charter proponents point to the county's rapid growth -- population rose 27.8 percent between 1980 and 1990, second only in the Baltimore region to Howard's 57 percent -- and argue that the services needed by an expanding population cannot be provided by a part-time government.
Historically, the more populous Maryland counties are the ones that have opted for home rule, starting with Montgomery County in 1948. Baltimore County voters approved a charter in 1956, Anne Arundel in 1964, Howard in 1968 and Harford in 1972.
The charter board majority has been trying to craft a document that will appeal to voters on two scores: It won't result in a drastic change from the commissioner form of government, and it will be cheap.
To accomplish both goals, the six-member majority overrode three conservative Republicans and wrote in a county manager appointed by the council (rather than an elected executive, as in the other metropolitan subdivisions).
And the majority plans to pay the five council members just $7,500 a year. The council will set the manager's salary, but the total salary costs would be roughly equal to those under the commissioner form of government. (The commissioners earn $30,000.)
The proposed charter makes the council both the legislative and executive branch of government, just as the commissioners have been, although the commissioners' legislative powers are strictly limited. The General Assembly now decides issues ranging from how late taverns can stay open in Carroll to whether the county will be allowed to issue bonds for construction projects. The legislative delegation can and does refuse to introduce bills requested by the commissioners. This year, the six-member delegation refused to allow the county to create a reserve "rainy day" fund.
The three charter board members backing an elected executive insist that they are not trying to sabotage charter government by writing in a provision that will make it less acceptable to voters. All three say they're concerned that there be checks and balances provided by the separation of the executive and legislative branches.
One of the three, former Del. V. Lanny Harchenhorn, initially opposed charter government with an elected executive "with its ever-burgeoning staffs and costs as seen in metropolitan Maryland counties."
Mr. Harchenhorn says his epiphany came when he realized that citizens would not have direct control over the appointed manager. He says he now believes that the burgeoning costs he initially feared "wouldn't happen in Carroll County."
Charter board co-chairman Jon R. Buck, who voted with the majority, admits that a single executive and legislative branch has disadvantages, but adds, "The board [majority] felt that the economy of a streamlined form of government was more important than having a clear separation of powers."
The appointed manager will be cheaper, charter proponents reasoned after learning that counties with elected executives also have appointed managers who oversee day-to-day operations.
Carroll's current charter movement started with a series of educational programs three years ago by the county chapter of the League of Women Voters. Interest grew, and a citizens' coalition formed to push the idea.
William Sraver Jr., who got involved in the charter movement during an unsuccessful 1990 candidacy for county commissioner, says he thinks charter will pass if there is an intensive educational effort. "There are some who say, 'It's not broke, so don't fix it.' They don't realize how broke it is," he says.
Most Carroll countians never see their government at work. The commissioners meet during daytime hours, racing from session to session discussing issues from staff representation at regional transportation meetings to where to put a proposed shooting range.
The result is hamster-wheel government, frenetic activity without much visible forward motion.
The system leaves little time for long-range planning. On the issue of county police protection, for example, the commissioners have asked the Maryland State Police for a multi-year commitment to provide resident state troopers. But they have not tackled the long-range issues of whether to phase in a county police force to replace the resident trooper program, which is expected to end in the next few years.
Donna Boller is a reporter for the Carroll County Sun.