Hope fades for backers of charter campaign Deadline nears

1,500 more signers needed

February 28, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Organizers of Carroll's fledgling charter government movement say their hopes are getting dimmer by the day.

Only a month remains for a dwindling core of volunteers to gather the remaining 1,500 signatures needed to force the County Commissioners to appoint a panel that would write a charter.

If successful, charter would change Carroll's government from three commissioners to one executive and a county council.

Dan Hughes, volunteer coordinator for Carroll County Citizens for Charter Government, said he is about to ring the death knell for the proposal. Other supporters want to struggle until the last possible hour.

The drive took off last fall, and volunteers have 2,500 signatures toward their goal of 4,000. But organizers must gain the remaining 1,500 by March 29, because 300 of those obtained are dated Sept. 29, and signatures are valid for only six months.

"There is a flicker of hope," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "I plan to plug away until the end and hopefully get there. At least we will know we tried."

In the General Assembly, the county delegation is sponsoring a bill that would expand the commissioner board from three to five members. Charter supporters say the bill is an attempt to confuse voters.

"Five commissioners is not the answer," Herman said. "It does not go far enough. Charter is the next logical step in improving our government."

The goal of 4,000 signatures would be 5 percent of the county's registered voters plus a buffer in case of errors.

"We have four weekends left and would have to have people at virtually every major shopping center in the county," Hughes said.

Hughes' problem is a lack of volunteers and collection sites, particularly in Westminster. The management at Cranberry Mall, the county's largest shopping center, called the movement political and refused volunteers entry.

The Giant Food store in Westminster has opened its doors to the campaign tomorrow and Sunday. But so far, Hughes has no one to cover Sunday.

The availability of petitions does not guarantee voters will sign them. In the past two weeks, volunteers have been at several functions that drew crowds, but have added only 500 names. More than 3,000 people attended the Hampstead Business Expo Saturday; 68 signed the petitions.

"We had a lot of good conversations and a lot of people saying they wanted to read up on charter before signing," said Hampstead Mayor Christopher Nevin, who with Herman has led the campaign for charter. "We picked up more help, too."

Nevin acknowledges that the outlook for charter is bleak, but he is willing to continue the effort until the end of next month.

"We are severely undermanned," Nevin said. "If we get more help, charter still has a shot."

Herman encountered voter apathy and saw a great need for education. Many people have no understanding of what charter is, he said.

"There is an enormous learning curve," Herman said. "So many people have no concept of what local government is and how it functions."

Charter has been "stereotyped as expensive government," Nevin said. Supporters disagree, saying charter would mean paying one annual salary instead of $32,000 to each of three commissioners.

"Charter would offer more people an opportunity to get involved in government," Hughes said. "We might get someone to make a career change. We might bring in more talent. It is the one alternative that would significantly improve government."

Herman found little support among those who worked for the failed 1992 charter effort.

"Many of those who helped five years ago feel alienated," Herman said. "Some even said the previous commissioners sabotaged the process."

Richard T. Yates and Donald I. Dell, two of the three current commissioners, insisted on a petition drive to gauge voter interest in reviving charter. If the campaign is successful, they, along with Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown, would appoint a board to write the charter.

"The lack of support from Yates and Dell signaled to many that the [board] appointees would be charter opponents," Hughes said. "In essence, they could write clauses into it that would kill it."

If the drive can emerge from the doldrums, charter could appear on the 1998 ballot, with the legislative delegation's proposal to expand the board to five.

"We really need people to make an effort," said Hughes.

"As bleak as it is, there is still a possibility that we can pull this off."

Volunteers will be at the Eldersburg Giant from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. tomorrow and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday; and at the Westminster Giant from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. tomorrow. Information: 795-1159.

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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