Counties consider switch to charter Lack of autonomy, delays in decisions spur push for change

June 16, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

In 1973, Talbot County became the eighth county in Maryland to switch from commissioner to charter government. In the 23 years since, other counties have tried to make the change, only to have it rejected by voters.

Now, frustrated with the lack of autonomy, hassles with legislative delegations and impasses in local decision-making, voters in Carroll, Caroline and Cecil counties are talking charter again.

"Charter is a better way to run a business, with an executive rather than a committee making decisions," said Oakley A. Sumpter Jr., a Cecil County commissioner. "Our county is approaching 80,000 people and a $120 million budget. We need more local on-site decision making with a full-time executive."

In Cecil, a proposed switch to charter government barely lost in a special election in 1991. Sumpter, formerly mayor of Perryville, campaigned successfully in 1994 for commissioner on a promise to appoint a charter committee.

"People here are saying that the government closest to the people is the best government," said David Culver, Cecil County administrator.

With help from the University of Maryland's Institute for Government Services, a nine-member committee has worked since November on a new charter for Cecil. It will go to the three county commissioners next month and should be on the Nov. 5 ballot.

"A regular election works better and is more economical," said Sumpter, who rates the charter proposal's chances of being approved as good.

If the charter proposal passes in Cecil, it will take effect in 1998 with the election of a county executive and representatives from seven council districts.

"Most people here look at charter as a form of government more responsive to citizens," said Culver. "Why should you have other counties voting on issues that only affect your county?"

Commissioner counties must rely on the state legislature to pass laws, "a burdensome process which often takes months," said John Everngam, chairman of Caroline County Citizens for Charter Government.

"We feel more control should be held by the people," said Everngam, a retired naval officer.

In Carroll, charter proponents are planning a petition drive. The signatures of 5 percent of the 71,000 registered voters would force the Board of County Commissioners to appoint a board that would write a charter.

In Caroline, which has nearly 12,000 registered voters, a nine-member board is drafting a charter, hoping to put the issue on the November ballot.

"It is basically a reaction to a tax increase," said Edwin G. Richards, county administrator. "The only thing the current government [cannot legislate] is a tax cap."

The proposed Caroline County charter, which is incomplete, provides for the ouster of the current commissioner board -- elected to a four-year term in 1994 -- and an election in 1997, said Richards.

The Caroline charter committee wants to replace the three-member board of commissioners with five council

members and an appointed county administrator. The committee would also write a tax ceiling into the charter.

"A raise in the piggyback tax stimulated the charter effort," said Everngam. "It pushed the population over the edge of satisfaction with local government."

Looking at the history of charter, Everngam found that peripheral issues, not specifics, contributed to the defeats at the polls.

"Opponents claim charter is more expensive, but I say show me," he said.

Nearly all of the 156 towns in Maryland operate under charters. In Carroll, the mayors of its eight towns are pushing for charter as a more efficient form of government.

"As mayors, we can testify how good charter works," said New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr. "In municipalities, we are already under charter and can make laws without running through a bunch of hoops."

Still, Gullo said he is unsure what form of government Carroll voters want. Charter proposals have been defeated twice, most recently in 1992 by a 2-to-1 margin.

"People need to make a commitment to understand charter government," he said. "If they are simply dissatisfied with the policies of the current board of commissioners, it doesn't necessarily mean they should change the form of government."

Del. Joseph M. Getty, a Carroll Republican who served on the 1992 charter committee, said voters often look at charter government as a panacea.

"I don't think the structure of government makes a big difference," said Getty. "It is always the people you elect."

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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