Dates for charter election raise several red flags


March 22, 1998|By MIKE BURNS

WHO WOULD have thought that the election date for voting on whether to switch from commissioner to charter government would cause such a problem?

All of the legal objections to the original June 9 polling date popped up belatedly, the supposedly competent people disclaiming responsibility for the lapse.

Was it a disappointing failure of nearly everyone involved to ensure that a special spring election on the charter question could be held smoothly, legally? Or was it an example of how many heads can come together to eventually, by trial and error, solve a problem?

In either case, the result is not the best setting for a referendum of such importance to Carroll County: changing a system of local government that is 160 years old.

First Saturday vote ever

The election date now set by the County Commissioners is May 2, a Saturday. That's not a customary election day; no one remembers a Saturday election in Carroll's history.

But it's an open question whether the turnout will be higher or lower than on, say, a Tuesday. And whether the unusual polling day will favor supporters or opponents of the switch to charter rule.

The abrupt decision by the commissioners came last week, as the school board was considering its request to close schools April 28 (a Tuesday) so they could be used as polling stations. The board previously refused to close schools Tuesday, May 5.

Curiously, the timing of the referendum was a major controversy in discussions of the charter board -- which was, nonetheless, oblivious to the main legal pitfall. The charter board split on holding a special election in spring, or placing the issue on the November general election ballot. The spring election won out.

The charter board effectively determined the time period in which an election had to be held when the board handed over the final proposed charter to the commissioners Feb. 13. By state law, the referendum had to be held within 120 days. The panel noted no possible legal complications.

The commissioners reviewed the document, and then set the election date for the last Tuesday (June 9) within the 120 days. They noted no time-frame problems.

Perhaps the commissioners relied too much on the nine months of deliberations by the charter board to overcome any potential legal obstacles.

Perhaps the charter board relied too much on review of the draft document by the Institute for Governmental Services of the University of Maryland. Having evaluated various ballot issues in this state, the institute presumably had the experience to catch possible legal conflicts.

Then someone looked at the charter and found that the Aug. 8 filing deadline for candidates seeking charter office (assuming it was approved by voters) was later than the July 6 state filing deadline. An IGS consultant had suggested the later deadline, saying it was supported by a court decision.

The county elections director, Patricia Matsko, and Del. Joseph M. Getty then asked the Maryland attorney general about the legality of the Aug. 8 filing deadline.

The AG's office, long accustomed to election opinions, issued an evasive letter indicating no legal problem, but suggesting legislation in the General Assembly to sanction the date.

The day the delegation bill was to be filed in Annapolis, Linda H. Lamone, head of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws, told legislators and Ms. Matsko that the filing deadline extension would violate federal election law.

Absentee ballots must be mailed out 45 days before any election for federal office. Carroll candidates filing for charter office Aug. 8 would be too late to have their names appear on ballots mailed for the Sept. 15 primary. The bill was not filed.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, the Carroll delegation leader, then suggested holding the election in May. Ms. Lamone offered the idea of a mail-in ballot, which would be a first in Maryland, because of the short time to prepare for a vote.

The commissioners hurriedly settled on Tuesday, May 5 or Saturday, May 2. Both would satisfy the federal law.

MSPAP conflict

But the Carroll Board of Education balked at closing schools May 5. Maryland School Performance Assessment Program testing is scheduled that week statewide and could not be changed.

Volunteer fire company halls, also used as polling places, were already booked solid for Saturday events. (Alternate polling sites will now be used for the May 2 vote.)

Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors of Elections was alternately worrying it would not have time for a May vote, or confident that it could handle a May vote. Neither state nor county election board, however, had offered advice to the charter board or commissioners earlier.

Assuming the May 2 date stands, little time remains for public review and discussion of this fundamental decision on county government. Copies of the charter document have been printed and widely distributed bearing an election date of June 9. Is that another red flag for legal challenge?

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

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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