Group suggests charter change Land-use referendum would require more voter signatures

January 23, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The Howard County Charter Review Commission wants to increase the number of voter signatures required to challenge county land-use decisions in referendums -- a move that slow-growth proponents say would damage a measure passed by voters in the last election.

The commission also is recommending that the county limit the types of land-use cases that could be challenged by referendum, according to a draft report presented to the County Council yesterday.

Susan B. Gray, one of the leading slow-growth advocates, said yesterday that the recommendations would dilute the impact of Question B, a measure passed in the fall 1994 election.

Question B was intended to give voters the right to challenge county land-use decisions made by the zoning board. It was opposed by much of the county's power structure, elected and otherwise.

"It appears to me that this is an attempt to get rid of whatever was left of the right for people to challenge these decisions," said Ms. Gray, who in the same election failed in a bid for the county executive's office.

"There's a strong interest among some members of the [commission] of making sure the people of Howard County don't have their say," she said.

Another slow-growth advocate, Peter Oswald of Fulton, alleged yesterday that the charter commission has been influenced by local developers strongly opposed to Question B.

But Thomas Meachum, a Columbia attorney and chairman of the commission, denied that charge, saying the group acted methodically in examining the charter -- or constitution -- for improvements.

Petitioners now need to collect 5,000 signatures to bring land-use decisions to a vote.

The commission is recommending that citizens be required to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the county's registered voters -- or about 5,750 people -- to place a referendum on the ballot. That requirement would increase with the county's growth.

"There should be a certain level of interest," Mr. Meachum said, in explaining the proposed change.

The other recommended change that would alter Question B's impact -- limiting instances in which Question B could apply -- mirrors a bill passed last year by the County Council. The council excluded certain zoning matters, such as new town zoning for Columbia or special zoning uses that allow businesses in rural areas.

"The County Council gutted it," Ms. Gray said.

The commission has scheduled a public hearing on its draft report Feb. 15. Then the County Council will decide whether to submit the proposed charter changes to a countywide vote.

The charter review group also is recommending a change that would allow politicians to receive "nominal gifts" from those doing business with the county -- a move also drawing criticism.

It is illegal for a government official to receive a "service or thing of value" from someone doing business with the county. The change would insert the language: "service or thing of more than nominal value."

For example, that would allow politicians to receive a cup of coffee, said Mr. Meachum and County Councilman Charles C. Feaga. "Nominal" would not be defined but would be left up to the interpretation of the county ethics commission, Mr. Meachum said.

But nominal should be defined, said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, a government ethics watchdog group. "People will ask, 'What is nominal?' This looks like a loophole that could be exploited."

A third recommendation involves changing the "merit system" for county employees.

Laws to protect county workers would remain in the county code. But by striking the word "merit" from the charter, county officials said, they would have more flexibility in transferring workers among departments -- something County Executive Charles I. Ecker wants to be able to do as part of his plan to cut government spending by 12 percent over the next 2 1/2 years.

Dale Chase, president of a local union representing county blue-collar workers, said he is "very concerned" about the change and will examine alternatives before the Feb. 15 hearing. Mr. Chase has an ally in Mr. Meachum, who disagreed with the majority of the commission on the merit change.

"The framers of the original charter were correct," Mr. Meachum wrote in the draft.

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