Five commissioners? Much ado about nothing


February 16, 1997|By Mike Burns

LET'S SEE IF we have this right. Carroll County's state legislative delegation wants to increase the number of county commissioners to five, even though the three incumbent commissioners strongly oppose the idea.

Del. Donald B. Elliott, who last year drafted a bill to increase the board of commissioners by two members and change the system from at-large to district elections, this year says he will introduce legislation retaining the at-large elections while expanding the board to five. Last year, he wanted district elections because the people of Carroll County wanted them, the delegate said. This year, he wants at-large elections because the people of Carroll want them. He must be listening to the silent majority, because there's scant evidence of any such groundswell.

Last year, the General Assembly delegation postured as the county's "legislative balance" to the "executive" rule by the three commissioners. That was why, those legislators explained, all sorts of bills opposed by the commissioners were introduced in Annapolis as "local legislation." (And why legislation requested by the commissioners was not sponsored by the delegation.)

It was also the apparent reason those local bills were introduced without a countywide public hearing. State legislators, it seems, always have their doors open to constituents, making public hearings unnecessary.

This year things were supposed to be different.

The county commissioners held a public hearing to solicit legislative proposals from the citizenry. The commissioners met with the legislators. The legislators held a public hearing on proposed bills. This obliging pas de deux was performed without a lot of the guerrilla warfare between the two government groups that became a public embarrassment in the previous General Assembly session.

The delegation decision to go ahead with legislation authorizing five county commissioners, however, signals a return to the old politics of confrontation. Not that there's anything inherently evil, or disadvantageous, in having five elected commissioners. (Half the Maryland counties with commissioner government have five elected members.)

The problem is that the delegation is going ahead on its own without the support of the commissioners and without a proper airing of what could be a significant change in county government. There's no such demand, even though the idea has been floated by state legislators for some time.

The Annapolis legislators say they are not unilaterally changing the county government. They are just going to give the good citizens a chance to vote on the matter in a referendum, in 1998.

It all sounds rather encouraging for the democratic process and local sovereignty. But there's a more devious intent to this action: to head off any movement toward charter government by getting the five-commissioner question on the ballot first.

What charter movement?

What charter government movement? you may ask. That's a fair question, given all the lip service for that issue last year that has yet to convince 5 percent of the electorate even to call for a committee to draft a charter for referendum. Even its most avid advocates concede the public apathy, and the lack of enthusiasm for a concerted petition drive for the charter committee.

Yet the skeleton of a petition organization endures through this winter, with faint hopes of achieving the signature goal in spring.

The five-commissioner proposal only confuses the matter, without necessarily improving the administration of county government. It will undoubtedly cost more money, which immediately raises strong opposition in Carroll. There's no evidence that more commissioners will provide more wisdom, or easier consensus, or even more representation.

Providing for election by district, with five commissioners, would have increased public representation. It would have better reflected the rapid growth and changing character of the county, while dampening some of the regional rivalry that occasionally surfaces. That's much the position of Del. Ellen L. Willis, the Carroll delegation's lone Democrat, who voted against the majority favoring the five-commissioner legislation.

But Sen. Timothy Ferguson bluntly stated the delegation's case against district election of commissioners: "It's the slippery slope toward charter government."

What's needed here is a proper foundation of public education and discussion about possible changes in Carroll's form of government. The status quo always enjoys an advantage, so the proponents of change must present compelling arguments. There may not be a cry for change now.

But a series of public meetings to discuss this fundamental issue of governance is far preferable to having a single alternative forced on the ballot by five legislators, with little public input.

It's a meaningless effort that will not promote true debate about change, and yet still manages to stick the needle into the thin skins of the commissioners.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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