Timetable for charter vote is far from cut and dried


January 18, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

THE CHARTER drafting committee has almost completed its work, well ahead of its 18-month deadline. But, as ever, the devil is in the details.

The Institute for Government Service at the University of Maryland is reviewing the document for legality and consistency. The institute performed the same service in 1992, when the last charter proposal for Carroll County was drafted.

Not that there's any obvious flaw or contradiction in the document. The nine Carroll citizens who wrote the draft, even with their sharp disagreements on specific clauses, do not suggest that there is a defect, a nub of legalistic contention.

The government service office expects to present its detailed final opinion to the charter-writing panel the last week of this month, in time for the drafting board's scheduled Jan. 29 meeting. There probably won't be much for the Carroll board to do, except make a few minor changes. The next step is to hand it over to the county commissioners for review and eventual placement on the ballot for public referendum.

But the charter-writing board's timetable is not so cut and dried. There's no requirement that the board submit the draft to the commissioners until its 18-month term legally expires. At its ultimate limit, that could be too late for even the November general election.

This is not just a theoretical possibility. The panel members are pretty much split on whether to send the draft promptly to the commissioners, or whether to hold onto the document for months -- and thus avoid a special election in May on whether to change the charter.

By the last reckoning, a 5-to-4 majority preferred prompt action, which would set the legal clock running. The commissioners by law have 30 days to consider the draft charter, then another 90 days to get the proposal to referendum.

May vs. November?

If the proposed charter is delayed until, say, July, it would go on the November ballot, with other political races and questions. In a May special election, it would be the only question, with a straight yes-or-no vote.

What's the difference? About $100,000, say advocates of the November ballot. That's the estimated cost of holding a special election.

Elitism, adds the chairwoman of the drafting panel. Those who favor special elections for ballot questions or contests are elitist, she says. Democracy demands that everything be decided in the general election, when more voters turn out. The significance of the election timing lies in a shared perception of the supporters and the opponents of charter.

A special springtime election would attract only those particularly concerned about the county's form of government -- for or against charter -- not just the dutiful electors who confine their obligation to the November general ballot. Put the charter question on the lengthy general ballot and people will either ignore it or automatically vote it down as unnecessary change, overwhelmed as they are with races and issues.

There's a good deal of truth in those pragmatic assessments. Charter backers prefer the special election, opponents favor a general election decision.

The board has been working since May. There were disagreements over whether to require a tax cap in the charter and an appointed (rather than elected) executive, both holdovers from the unsuccessful 1992 draft. The last major issue, decided this month, was on requiring a four-fifths council majority to approve property tax increases.

All of those elements eventually were dropped from the draft.

The charter issue got a lot of talk among community groups in early 1996. Then the mayors of Carroll municipalities asked the commissioners to appoint a charter-writing board. The commissioners refused. A petition drive was launched to collect the needed 5 percent of registered voters to force appointment of a charter board. Commissioners made their appointments to the board in April.

Charter government, or home rule, has been turned down three times by Carroll voters in 30 years. Charter would provide more local decision-making authority, instead of depending on General Assembly approval, as occurs now. But the prospect of change, the potential added cost and added offices, and the specific elements of the charter proposals have doomed charter efforts.

There's a different population in Carroll than even in 1992, the last time charter went to a vote. It is more affluent, growing at a faster pace, with more new residents from metro counties that have long had charter government. That does not mean that these voters are ready to approve charter, only that electoral conditions have changed.

Of course, voters who prefer the commissioner system can vote in November to increase the number of commissioners from three to five. That's a referendum question the state legislature foisted on the citizenry, without any visible support. They didn't even have to involve citizens in drafting the question.

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

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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