A Tale of Two Ballot Questions

November 06, 1992

Of the 11 Baltimore County ballot questions approved by voters Tuesday, two produced mild surprises. The tale of those two questions offers a lesson that county leaders would do well to learn.

Mild surprise No. 1 was the easy passage of Question F, a $600,000 bond issue to create affordable housing for working-class county residents.

The bond's approval and its 66 percent vote total came as surprises because a $2.5 million bond for similar housing was the only question defeated in the 1990 election. The issue has never been a popular one in the county. For decades it has generated fear among many white residents who have associated low-cost housing with ugly tenements occupied by poor minority residents.

Backers of Question F understood it was largely that prejudice that has kept affordable housing on the back burner. So this time around, officials of county government, civic groups and private organizations mounted a low-key public campaign to shed some light on benighted attitudes of long standing. They promoted Question F as a measure to help hard-working, taxpaying citizens of all races realize the American dream of home ownership. No doubt this promotional effort helped Question F in its unexpectedly smooth ride to victory.

The second mild surprise was the slim 53 percent total for Question H, a $1.7 million bond issue for community improvements such as landscaping in commercial districts and town centers.

Some observers, wondering why an innocent-sounding "community improvements" bond barely won, opined that voters saw it as a luxury in these belt-tightening times. Yet the same could be said about Question E, a $3 million bond issue for park preservation, which took 66 percent of the vote.

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is that "community improvements" struck many voters as vague, especially when other questions on the ballot were described with "school construction," "asbestos removal," "bridge repair" and other specific terms that people had little trouble visualizing.

A bond for sprucing up old communities might be viewed by some as low priority, but not if the county is to stem blight and spur commercial revitalization. Yet it almost failed, partly because of poor presentation. Meanwhile, Question F breezed through with a modest public relations push. For future elections, county leaders should remember a little communication with voters can go a long way toward the success of bond issues -- particularly on projects the electorate doesn't fully grasp.

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