'98 charter backers get a '96 lesson Cecil, Caroline voters reject type of change sought on ballot here

Indifference blamed

Officials urged to 'start early and sample what people want in charter'

November 08, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Charter government initiatives failed Tuesday in Cecil and Caroline counties -- doomed, backers say, by voter indifference and ignorance -- but supporters of a similar referendum in Carroll say they hope to learn from those mistakes before placing the issue on the ballot here in 1998.

Activists are offering lessons in government as they collect the 4,000 signatures needed before the County Commissioners appoint a charter-writing board.

The education process is vital if charter is to succeed in Carroll County, said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman, who is co-chairman of the effort with Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin.

While gathering signatures at Carrolltown Center recently, Herman explained the advantages that an autonomous county executive and council have over the three-commissioner government, which is dependent on its legislative delegation.

"Anybody familiar with local government recognizes charter is a brilliant idea," Herman said. "But, it is hard to get the general public to understand."

Like any business with a $150 million budget, the county needs a full-time executive to manage it, Herman said. He hopes to win the support of major groups, particularly the county Board of Education.

Support from local officials and an enlightened public may not be enough. Residents have to want a change in government.

"I don't think people are ready for a change; they are basically satisfied with the commissioner government," said Ralph Young, chairman of Cecil County Friends of Charter.

Charter had the support of two of the three Cecil County commissioners, and the charter committee organized a countywide education program for its 78,000 residents. In the months before the election, the committee organized five public hearings and met frequently with local organizations.

"We really attempted to educate people, but everyone is so busy I don't think they took the time to find out what charter really is," said Young. "We feel we just didn't do a good enough job getting our message across."

The local paper, the Cecil Whig, published a charter series that was accurate and well-researched, said Jeanne Bilanin, a consultant with the Institute for Governmental Service in College Park.

Yet, 12,864 voters rejected the change for a fifth time since 1968, by a margin of 4,000 votes.

"As far as we knew, charter had a good chance in Cecil this time," Bilanin said. "The margin of defeat surprised all the people in [the institute's] office."

The institute, part of the University of Maryland System, helped Cecil and Caroline counties write their charters and has offered to help Carroll.

"Before we tackle the issue again, we will make some effort to find out what the opposition was all about," said Bilanin.

Cecil County Commissioner William Manlove appointed Young to the charter board and commended the group for an excellent job, but said he thought the county was not ready for the change. The only commissioner to oppose charter, Manlove said it "puts another layer of bureaucracy between the people and decision-makers."

In Caroline, an Eastern Shore county with 29,000 residents, the measure had no support from local officials. The inclusion of a tax limit in the proposed charter generated strong opposition from the school board.

"The commissioners opposed us every step of the way, so we figured we were on the right track," said John Everngam, chairman of the local Citizens for Charter Government.

Caroline, where 65 percent of the 12,205 registered voters turned out Tuesday, defeated the proposal by 664 votes. Nearly 1,500 of the 7,944 voters who participated in the presidential election did not cast a vote on the charter issue.

"There were a number who couldn't decide and opted not to vote on charter at all," Everngam said. "By and large, the people here feel charter is more complicated and more befitting counties with larger populations."

With more than 140,000 residents, Carroll may have reached that number. Everngam offered Carroll charter proponents advice: "Start early and sample what people want in a charter."

Carroll voters rejected charter in 1992, but supporters revived the issue this year.

"The education curve is large, and we have a lot of work to overcome what people don't know," Nevin said. "We will have to try awfully hard to make people understand the need for charter."

Pub Date: 11/08/96

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