Correct a typo? No way, voters say Minor issue loses big, baffling some observers

November 07, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

The proposal seemed innocuous enough. In Howard County, officials hoped to correct what was little more than a typographical error in their county constitution.

So they asked Howard voters on Election Day for permission to change "Appeal Boards" to "Board of Appeals."

"No!" county voters screamed in an 84 percent landslide -- their most decisive rejection of the day and one illustrating the broader electorate's distrust for government and the confusion over all those questions on the backs of Maryland ballots.

Throughout the state, voters often shoot in the dark on these issues, political scientists said yesterday. One political scientist, the University of Maryland's Vince Marando, himself a Columbia resident, said even he didn't study the proposed changes.

"If I didn't do this," he said. "I can guarantee you that 95 percent of the people or higher didn't do it."

So what happened in Howard? Why, on this particular issue -- involving the appeals board -- did voters stand up in unified defiance as if the county was coming after their two-car garages?

No one seemed to know.

"That one flabbergasted me," said Darrel E. Drown, the Republican chairman of the County Council. "You couldn't get 80 percent of the people to agree that [Election Day] was Tuesday. But they certainly agreed that this was a bad thing."

But the appeals board proposal was not so much a bad thing as an exceedingly minor thing.

"They took the proverbial sledgehammer to the fly," Drown said, "and they don't even know why the fly was there."

There was plenty of blame to go around, according to voters, elected officials and political scientists interviewed yesterday: The voters are too busy to study such trivial matters. Howard politicians must have been up to something because it sounded so simple. Local newspapers hadn't provided full details about all 13 proposed changes to the county constitution, officially known as its charter. This stuff is kind of boring.

For Eric Silver, 22, a plumber from rural western Howard, the term "Board of Appeals" sounded too expensive.

"You're going to think I'm crazy," he said yesterday. "But it's pretty much the same thing I thought it was just a waste of county money."

Silver figured the new change would mean new stationery. He was wrong, officials say. The appeals board has always called itself "Board of Appeals," so its stationery is in shape. The county was simply trying to clean up its charter.

Still, it's hard to blame Silver for being suspicious. Consider what happened to him on another proposed charter change -- Question J on the ballot. He and his father even studied a sample ballot the night before the election. They liked what they read in Question J:

"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."

So the next day, they voted "yes," under the assumption that the whole section was new. Trouble was, only the phrase "more than nominal" was new -- which gives officials some wiggle room on minor gifts.

After he learned what he'd voted for, Silver reported the news to his father. It figures, they told each other.

Howard voters passed that measure and eight other proposed changes to the charter.

They rejected four other measures, including the name of the appeals board. The other issues rejected would have: allowed the government to borrow money for short-term projects; altered technical aspects of how money flows into the county's "rainy-day fund"; and eliminated a December session of the County Council.

Howard's charter has been around since 1966. One of its authors, James Holway, believes the election results indicate that officials should do more to explain their changes to the document. The "Board of Appeals" rejection, he said, "reflects a total lack of understanding of the questions."

Meanwhile, at the actual Board of Appeals, chairman George Layman said the failed change was not a big deal. The change merely addressed a title of a charter section.

For all practical purposes, Layman said, everyone in government will continue using "Board of Appeals" to describe the land-use panel that decides matters such as whether to allow a gas station near a residential neighborhood.

And to the general public, Layman said, his panel will remain largely a mystery.

"I tell people I serve on the Board of Appeals and people say, 'Oh, what kind of board is that?' Or they say, 'That's nice.' "

Layman said the backs of the ballots also will remain a mystery to voters: "They turn over their ballot and they say, 'Oh what's this?'"

In addition to the "nominal" gifts proposal, voters on Tuesday approved eight changes to the charter, which will go into effect next month.

The changes will:

Make nonsubstantive changes to County Council qualifications.

Create a voting redistricting commission.

Alter the day on which new laws take effect.

Increase maximum fines levied by the council.

Allow more joint purchases with other public entities.

Set up minor penalties for minor ethics law violations.

Change "Secretary of the Council" to "Administrator of the Council" and "County Administrator" to "Chief Administrative Officer."

Make the charter gender-neutral.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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