What's to be afraid of in vote on charter rule?


September 07, 1997|By MIKE BURNS

CONVENTIONAL political wisdom is that a general election brings out more voters than a state election, and that a statewide election draws more participation than a local one. Overall, the vote totals confirm that belief.

But it is not always the case. With the right candidates, a hot issue and a really contested race, the local election turnout can be heavy. In Montgomery County, the local school board races have been the most exciting for voters.

Earlier this year, several town elections in Carroll County produced some healthy voter counts after energetic campaigning.

New Windsor had 60 percent of registered voters cast ballots, which is none too shabby. Of course, U.S. voter turnout is inveterately low in most every election, a turnout of more than 50 percent considered encouraging.

So holding a special election in Carroll on the fundamental question of changing the 150-year-old system of county government would not necessarily result in a low voter turnout. It wouldn't mean an electoral manipulation, so that a small number of charter-rule supporters would prevail.

To the contrary, a special election on such a heated topic should actually increase public interest and participation.

While the details and nuances in a proposed charter may not be compelling to everyone, the basic differences between commissioner and charter government should be sufficient to provoke public curiosity, if not widespread passionate debate. It's not as if such a referendum were held every other year. The last vote on charter in 1992 was stuffed onto a jammed general election ballot.

And the 1992 proposed charter (with an appointed county executive and a tax cap) was decidedly different than the version seemingly favored by a majority of the nine members of this year's official charter-drafting committee.

Carroll's population has grown and its makeup has changed considerably since then.

Whether voters are for it or against it, they deserve the democratic courtesy and focused attention of a special election. (By state law, a vote must be held within 120 days of the draft's completion.)

Nonetheless, the troglodyte faction sees nothing but evil in a straightforward, up or down, vote on this democratic foundation of county government.

"You know the real reason that the liberals want a special election is that they will keep the masses of voters at home during the special election. You don't want the masses voting, you want the election controlled by a few, the typical liberal way of doing business."

Most people will recognize without further hint the author of such anti-liberal screed: County Commissioner Richard T. Yates. (See letter at right.)

What Mr. Yates claims that he objects to most is the cost of holding a special election, now estimated at $106,000.

(Now that figure includes some personnel costs that would be paid anyway. And a "special" election would still be needed should charter government be approved in the all-purpose general election: to elect new officeholders in the new form of government, without waiting four years.)

We would agree that $106,000 is not an insignificant sum. Certainly not an expense to be made on frivolous ballot issues. But this isn't a frivolous issue and it's not a "liberal vs. conservative" issue, either. Political leaders of either, or any, persuasion can be elected and rule under either form.

Home rule anti-conservative?

Any move to change the status quo may be seen as anti-conservative, but there are plenty of political conservatives out there advocating for various changes in our society and government.

If the masses are, indeed, opposed to changing Carroll's form of government, they should turn out en masse to vote against it -- at either a special election or general election. Mr. Yates should be mobilizing his many personal supporters, enlisted in his Long March of 1994 to a commissioner's office, to battle the infidel at the ballot box, instead of pleading for the abused interests of the lethargic and apathetic.

To assure the cost-conscious citizenry that this wouldn't be a regular thing, the county commissioners could impose a period of moratorium on future special ballot question elections.

They could approve this special balloting, with the provision that another special vote not be held for five or six years.

Of course, that decision could be overturned by the next board of commissioners (or county council!), but that would be the new bunch's political responsibility.

It's much like the long-term plan for school construction (with an earmarked piggyback tax and bond schedule) that the current commissioners enacted this spring; it can always be revoked.

Residents of Carroll's municipalities are used to voting in off-years in the spring for their local leaders. They may be more likely to turn out for a special charter vote than those in unincorporated areas. They make up a quarter of Carroll's population.

So it may be the turnout of these citizens, accustomed to the charter form of local rule, that the opponents of a special election on charter rule truly fear.

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

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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