The specter of fragility haunts the rube-ish domains

November 14, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Elections seem to do for newspaper psychobabble what manure does for mushrooms.

Four years ago, the columnist Ellen Goodman wrote that all those white guys out in the suburbs who voted against her favorite candidates weren't angry, they were ''anxious.'' Lots of white guys, and some women who shared their views, wrote in and anxiously suggested that Ms. Goodman seek professional help, as she must be out of her gourd.

Now the Baltimore Sun has concluded that the mood in the suburbs this year is neither angry nor anxious. Instead, the election results show that it's ''fragile and distrustful.'' Otherwise, why would the boondocks voters have turned down all those important referenda they had been told by their betters to approve?

Out here in this part of the savage wilderness, of course, we're generally too busy bowling, drinking whiskey and mowing down deer with our assault rifles to pay close attention to politics. But we did take a special interest in one of the statewide referendum questions The Sun thought we should have ratified.

This was the so-called ''quick-take'' proposal that would have allowed the Harford County government, once it took an interest in acquiring local property by eminent domain, to go ahead and grab it without waiting to complete all those tedious court procedures.

Why waste time?

This was presented by various local and statewide eminences as an efficient and money-saving reform. The government will get the property anyway, the theory goes, and so the only issue is how much it will eventually have to pay for it. People who oppose condemnation never win, so why allow them to waste everyone's time?

Why not, instead, just put the estimated value in an escrow account where it can be safely held for those the government wishes to relieve of their property? That way, work could start immediately on the road or stadium or polo field or whatever other vital facility those in authority have determined that the public needs.

And if a court decides later on that the value of the condemned property is higher than the government's estimate? Hey, no problem. The government just cuts the unwilling seller a bigger check for what's already been taken from him.

Now, if a court were to astonish the world by concluding that the property shouldn't be taken in the first place, it's true that the situation would be a little more complicated. If a government with quick-take powers had already gone ahead and built a beach-volleyball stadium in somebody's woodlot, say, it might have to tear down the stadium and replant a lot of trees. That would be both embarrassing and expensive.

But courts aren't supposed to oppose certified good-government policies, even if those policies are broadly despised by most of the people they'll affect. And usually, courts don't. (Did you ever notice that the same people who like quick-takes and other ways to strengthen the hand of officialdom are mostly the same ones who think judges shouldn't have to stand for election? I guess that might just be a coincidence, though.)

Anyway, voters across the state -- and in Harford County too, of course -- strongly rejected this latest quick-take proposal, just as they usually do whenever local officials sneak it onto the ballot for some county or other. And for some reason I don't think this was because their mood was ''fragile.''

What courts are for

Well, why was it, then? I've talked to only a dozen or so -- at the bowling alley, the moonshiner's, the target range -- and so my poll's not as scientific as the ones professional journalists take in newsrooms, but there does seem to be a sense around here that disputes over eminent domain are exactly the sort of thing we have courts for.

And if we're going to let government take our property without waiting for the courts to rule on it, then what's the next requested short cut likely to be? How about increasing your tax assessment without the silly formality of looking at your property? Or allowing developers to build their projects in your neighborhood without waiting to go through all the tiresome zoning hearings?

Harford County people have learned over the years that if you hand your government what they call a ''management tool,'' it'll whack you with it the minute you turn your back. That's not a sign of distrust on our part, mind you. It's just realism based on experience.

Over in Cecil County, where people don't have as much government to contend with as we do in Harford, you'd think a more pliant attitude might prevail. But given an opportunity to make their local government more complicated and expensive by approving a shiny new home-rule charter, the Cecil electorate responded with a resounding No.

It had to be because of a deep-seated sense of fragility, don't you suppose?

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 11/14/96

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