Charter changes to face voters 13 proposals included on ballot tomorrow provide few details

Most are not controversial

Others -- on districts, ethics and purchasing -- have drawn debate

Campaign 1996

November 04, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The first part of the ballots before Howard County voters tomorrow should be fairly self-explanatory. Voters will choose a president, a congressman, a local school board member and two local Circuit judges. Then there's the second part of the ballot.

What, voters may ask, is all that stuff?

That stuff is 13 proposed revisions to the Howard County Charter -- its constitution. Officials review the charter every eight years.

For the most part, the proposed changes are bureaucratic housecleaning -- such as making all language in the charter gender-neutral. But several of the proposals are generating public debate. They are: Does Howard County need a commission to revise its voting districts every decade? If so, should the Republican and Democratic parties pick the members -- thereby possibly bypassing independent voices? And should citizens have a chance to overrule the voting district commission? The proposal on the ballot would allow the political parties to pick the members and would deny citizens the chance to overrule the commission's decisions.

What kind of gifts should Howard's elected officials be permitted to accept from government contractors? Should officials be barred from accepting all gifts -- as is the case now -- or should they just be barred from accepting gifts "of more than nominal" value?

Should the county be allowed to establish minor penalties for minor ethics violations? Currently, the only conflict-of-interest penalty is expulsion from office.

Should the county be allowed to borrow millions of dollars for short-term capital expenditures, such as buying computer systems?

Inside voting booths, voters will not find the proposals fully described on the ballots, according to sample ballots supplied by the Howard County Board of Supervisors of Elections. If they did, the ballots might resemble several pages of a telephone book.

Instead, the proposal on the voting districts commission -- which would draw voting districts for County Council members -- for example, is compressed into a 105-word paragraph, which does not directly mention one of its key changes: that the major parties would pick commission members.

Tom Flynn, a member of a citizens group that has studied the charter changes for the past year, said the party picks could create a commission bereft of political independence.

"By defining the members of the commission on political grounds, you really cut out a lot of qualified people," Flynn said.

But the redistricting commission proposal overall has its good points, Flynn said. Currently, the five-member County Council redistricts itself. And as it showed in 1991, that can be messy.

At the time, the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans, three to two. Not surprisingly, the three Democrats drew up political maps to their benefit and passed the changes as a bill.

Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker then vetoed the plan. The three Democrats, knowing they did not have the votes to override the veto, simply rewrote the plan in the form of a resolution -- knowing that resolutions can't be vetoed.

Lawyers got into the fray. The dispute ended up in court. New districts weren't drawn up finally until 1993.

Nevertheless, a community activist who has studied the charter said the commission proposal should be defeated. John W. Taylor of Highland is troubled by a provision exempting the commission's recommendations from voter review.

"There is an ominous trend lately in some quarters to attempt to eliminate or restrict the right of 'we the people' to participate in major decisions that affect us all," Taylor said.

But Flynn and others say redistricting takes so long that it shouldn't be easily scrapped.

As for the proposal relating to the gifts public officials are allowed to receive -- tomorrow's ballot also does not provide full details.

Here is the ballot's description of the proposed change:

"To provide that no officer or employee of the County shall accept any service or thing of more than nominal value, directly ++ or indirectly, from any person, firm, or corporation having dealings with the County."

The ballot's description leaves the impression that the entire section is new. In fact, the only new part is the phrase "more than nominal." This is problematic, said James Holway, a framer of the original charter in 1966. The problem, he says, is the interpretation of "nominal." Is it a cup of coffee? A pair of opera tickets? A set of golf clubs?

"Nominal has no legal meaning," said Holway, who recommends voting against Question J. "For all practical purposes, these guys have put a word in there that doesn't mean anything. You can't challenge it because it doesn't mean anything."

But council members said "nominal" makes sense. They are constantly offered nominal gifts.

"We're always getting pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts of the day," said Republican County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, of Ellicott City.

"I just take it and say thank you," he said.

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