CARROLL COUNTY, by many measurements, is doing quite nicely, thank you.
Maryland's eighth largest county, with 150,000 residents, is the fifth-fastest growing jurisdiction in the state. Its students' scores on statewide tests usually rank in the top two or three. The price of a home is second highest in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Crime is low. The historically agrarian county still has plenty of stunning vistas. Two-thirds of the county is quilted by conservation land and rolling cornfields that don't look much changed from when Union and Confederate armies passed through en route to Gettysburg.
You might not suspect such prosperity from the roiling debate about whether the county should join its counterparts in the Baltimore area and switch from a commissioner form of government to charter home rule, with an elected executive and council.
The heat of the rhetoric suggests that Carroll can barely function with three commissioners pulling in different directions at times. Or that the county will sink under the weight of big taxes and big government if it chooses charter government.
Both arguments are overwrought. Carroll will probably continue to enjoy a fairly sunny quality of life, with the benefits and prosperity of suburban-rural living between two major cities, whether or not county voters decide Saturdayto change the form of government the county has had since 1837.
The question before voters isn't as pessimistic as some have presented. This week's referendum should not be framed as a matter of the county making a huge mistake if it holds to the status quo or doesn't.
The question voters should ask: Can Carroll do better with charter government?
Yes, it can.
Like its suburban neighbors, the county has absorbed more change in the past generation than in the first century and a half of commissioner rule. The county grew by 54 percent from 1950 to 1970, 79 percent from 1970 to 1990, and almost 20 percent since 1990. In 1950, 2 percent of the 2.3 million Marylanders called Carroll home; today, 3 percent of the state's 5 million residents do.
Looking ahead, the county's growth rate is expected to exceed the region as a whole into the year 2020.
Government by commissioners worked fine when the job consisted mostly of making sure services were provided efficiently. That remains a major responsibility of county government. But the commissioner form has been less able to cope with global economic and social changes that have been laid at government's doorstep.
Competing for jobs and economic development has become much more competitive.
The old order for the Baltimore region -- the city was the financial hub, the suburbs centered on farming or a large public-sector or government-related employer -- is largely out the window. Technology affords employers more leeway in where they can locate. In turn, county executives and mayors often fill the roles of chief marketer and cheerleader in trying to lure companies to their jurisdiction.
Carroll's three-commissioner government is ill-suited to the new rules of the game, which generally favors chief executives talking with other chief executives.
Indeed, Carroll's sluggish industrial growth and high rate of commuters out-of-county reveal its inability to compete on that playing field. Commercial and industrial properties make up about 12 percent of the county's tax base, half as successful as its neighbors.
Charter home rule, with a full-time elected county executive and a geographically representative county council, is better equipped to manage affairs into the 21st century. Unlike the commissioner form, in which executive duties are shared by three people elected countywide, home rule offers a clear division of powers and accountability.
A vote for charter government would not repudiate Carroll's history and traditions, as it did not in the eight Maryland counties that have chosen charter home-rule since World War II.
Montgomery County was first in 1948, followed by Baltimore County in 1956 and then a succession of jurisdictions in the 1960s and early '70s. Carroll weighed whether to go to charter home rule in 1968, but decided against it then and again in 1992. (In 1984, Carroll also rejected a proposal for "code home rule," which retains the commissioners but gives them more power to enact local laws.) Wicomico and Talbot counties chose charter home rule to create legislation without state approval but did not create elected county executive positions.
Those Eastern Shore counties, however, have not been transformed by suburbia to the extent Carroll has.
Can the county named for Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland signer of the Declaration of Independence, persevere with the commissioner form that has been in place since five years after Carroll died? Probably.
Can it do better with a form of local leadership more able to address its growing modern demands? Assuredly.
Tomorrow: Why local control?
Weighing the choices