New residents keep old ideas in Carroll

May 11, 1998|By Elise Armacost

I WAS in college in the early 1980s when the winds started to shift in Carroll County, where I grew up.

It wasn't hard to detect signs that the social and political climate of this place of small towns, farms and frugal, reserved people was about to change. Interstate 795 was under construction. Split-level houses were going up behind my father's property on what had been corn and soybean fields. A growing number of my younger siblings' classmates bore surnames other than Germanic, old-county monikers.

I was too politically oblivious at the time to realize it, but people who wanted to change Carroll's political life -- to make it more activist and sophisticated -- thought their day was coming. The new houses were filled with young families who had come from Baltimore and its suburbs -- the kind of people progressives thought would be on their side.

But politics, like weather, can be hard to predict.

Recently, Carroll voters shot down a proposal to replace their three commissioners with charter government -- an executive and county council that could make laws without going through Annapolis. In the early 1980s, "I thought we'd have charter within the decade," says former commissioner and charter proponent Jeff Griffith. Instead, it has failed repeatedly.

There are plenty of theories about the most recent defeat, everything from the supporters' tactics to the fact that the commissioners have been fairly uncontroversial lately.

Rabidly conservative

The real reason is more fundamental and significant: Suburbanization didn't bring newcomers yearning to change the county to reflect the philosophies and political structures of the places they had left. It did the opposite. Like many rural places, Carroll had been conservative in a gentle, laissez-faire way. Suburbanization produced a county that is probably the most rabidly conservative in Maryland, a turn of events few would have predicted 20 years ago.

Since then Democrats virtually have been eliminated from county and state offices. Republicans, outnumbered by Democrats in the mid-1960s, now outnumber them by 8,000. Letters to the local newspaper are more intensely anti-government and anti-activist than they were in the old days.

Not about old and new

The fight over charter government has been interpreted as a battle between the county's old guard trying to hold on to the status quo and newcomers seeking change. Both charter supporters and opponents agree that view is false. As Mr. Griffith noted, "This wasn't about old and new." Precincts made up almost entirely of new families -- the Spring Garden precinct in Hampstead, for example -- rejected charter government.

I would have voted for it, if I still lived in Carroll. Evidence shows residents they get less for their tax dollars than those in charter counties. Booming residential growth means the county must compete for jobs and economic development, and commissioner government tends not to attract people with the leadership skills to do that. Most important, charter means more local control over the issues that affect people's daily lives -- a fact one would think would appeal to a conservative county.

Opponents obscured these points with misinformation, but that's not what doomed charter government. The sentiment for change simply was not there.

"You have to look at why people are moving here," says local historian Del. Joseph Getty, a Republican. "They are disenchanted with where they have lived." They want to come home to a house that hasn't been broken in to, where their kids can play safely and the back yard offers peace and quiet.

In short, they want what old countians had. By and large, they have found that.

Charter supporters tried to show why charter is a better form of government. The trouble is that most people don't think the form of government makes that much difference.

What supporters needed to show, and didn't, was why the time was ripe for substantive change. The eight counties that moved to charter after World War II did so because citizens were looking for wholesale reforms of local governments that had become corrupt and inefficient. Though Carroll countians have their gripes with the commissioners, the roiling discontent needed to provoke a transformation in government doesn't exist.

Mr. Griffith thinks charter proponents should resurrect the issue every two years until they wear voters down. But you can't drag people kicking and screaming to where they don't want to go, and Carroll countians are happy where they are.

A lot has changed in the place that was my home. But not that.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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