Charter vote faces date conflicts Hold election sooner, county officials say

March 13, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

A referendum on a new form of county government cannot take place later than May 7 and meet state and federal deadlines, Carroll election board officials said yesterday.

They asked the County Commissioners to set Tuesday, May 5, as the date of the referendum, provided the school board agrees to close the schools so they can be used as polling places.

But the commissioners voted 2 to 1 to do no more than ask the school board if it would be willing to make the date available.

Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who opposes the proposed change to a county executive-county council form of government, voted against polling the school board. He is opposed to holding a referendum any earlier than June 9, a date already approved by the commissioners.

"If we keep moving this thing up, people will not have any time to study it," Yates said.

Commissioner Donald I. Dell, who also opposes the change in government, said he is worried about the earlier date. But he agreed with Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown to ask the school board whether the schools would be available on May 5.

"I didn't commit to May 5th," Dell said after the vote yesterday. "We have to have discussions to see where we go from here. I'm going to have to take this thing through the steps and see where it takes us. The thing that provokes us is that the charter board didn't do a thorough job so we're going to have to clean up their mess."

Asked what would happen if the commissioners refused to set a May 5 referendum date, election board attorney Richard R. Titus said, "Hopefully, it won't get to that point."

New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr., one of the authors of the charter that would establish the new form of government, says that to blame the County Commissioners' hand-picked charter board for the complications now being woven into the referendum process is "irresponsible."

Members spent nine months writing a proposed charter "in direct response to what certain citizens petitioned, as is their right in the Maryland Constitution," Gullo said.

The issue being put before the voters is whether to create a new government, Gullo said. "The people have a constitutional right to decide that. Everything else is minor."

Elected officials opposed to charter government "have made a simple task a huge complex thing," Gullo said. "Some commissioners adopted a lackluster approach almost like denial."

Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin, who, with Gullo, helped write the proposed charter, agreed. "The situation with the [referendum] is being needlessly complicated," he said.

This charter board worked much longer than the one that crafted a charter rejected by the voters in 1992, Nevin said. The 1992 proposal called for an appointed, rather than an elected executive, which many say led to its defeat.

This board "got the best advice we could get" from the University of Maryland's Institute of Government Service and produced "a document that is sound, reasonable, understandable and valuable," Nevin said.

If county voters adopt charter government June 9, it would take effect 30 days later. A county executive and five-member county council would be elected in the fall.

But candidates for those offices would not be able to file until the new charter takes effect. That would happen on July 9, three days after the state filing deadline for the fall elections.

Should a September primary be necessary, the June 9 referendum date also would make it impossible for the county to comply with federal regulations requiring that absentee ballots be printed 45 days before a primary election. Candidates for county executive or county council would have 30 days, or until Aug. 8, to file. They would have another 10 days to withdraw, Patricia Matsko, director of the Carroll election board told the commissioners. If candidates pulled out and no one else filed, the parties' central committees would have 10 days to choose a candidate, and it would take another week or 10 days, or until the end of August, to prepare absentee ballots, Matsko said.

An option being discussed by the county's General Assembly delegation would be to conduct the referendum by mail on May 5. That would require legislation to be introduced this session.

If approved, ballots would be mailed to Carroll's roughly 70,000 registered voters. It would be the first time in state history that a referendum was conducted by mail. The model for such a procedure, said Republican Del. Joseph M. Getty of Manchester, is a recent U.S. Senate referendum in Oregon.

Charter proponents have fought an uphill struggle from the start. After the County Commissioners refused in April 1996 to appoint a charter commission as requested by the county's mayors, a group of residents organized a successful petition drive to put charter on the ballot and force the commissioners to appoint a panel to write a charter.

The county's legislative delegation, meanwhile, voted to put a proposal to increase Carroll's Board of County Commissioners from three to five on the ballot at the same time voters are being asked to weigh charter government.

Pub Date: 3/13/98

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