Delegate wants to add 2 more commissioners

Expanding county needs debate at top, GOP legislator says

November 29, 1999|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN STAFF

How many commissioners does it take to lead Carroll County?

For the past 140 years, the answer to that question has been three. But a state delegate believes this once-rural county has grown so quickly and its problems have become so complicated that the Board of County Commissioners should be expanded to five members.

Del. Donald B. Elliott, a Republican from New Windsor, said five commissioners -- each representing a district -- would better serve Carroll's growing population, foster more in-depth debate and perhaps save the county money.

"The problems we have here are more numerous and complex than 20 years ago. With five commissioners, you have a broader intellectual and experience base. It engenders better decision-making," he said.

This is not the first time Elliott has made a pitch for more commissioners. In 1998, Elliott was the strongest supporter of a referendum to increase the board to five at-large members, part of the same ballot asking voters to approve charter government. Voters rejected both proposals.

Elliott says his proposal deserves another chance. The emotion- ally charged debate over charter government overshadowed the five-commissioner proposal, Elliott said. Without that interference, county residents may be more receptive to the idea, he said.

"I don't know if it got a fair shot," Elliott said.

Elliott plans to present a draft of his legislation on Dec. 8 at a joint meeting of the county's state delegation and the commissioners. The reaction has been mixed.

"I think the timing is right for this issue to be considered. It can be considered free of all the charter chatter that existed in the past," said Del. Joseph M. Getty, a Manchester Republican.

Still, Getty said he had reservations about the proposed change.

"The structure of the government is not important. It's the people you elect. I don't think any structure is uniquely better than another," he said, adding that he is afraid that under Elliott's proposal, the interest of the entire county would take a back seat to the interests of the districts.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, who said she was against the change, agreed.

"Districts bother me because everyone fights only for their district. We need to think about the entire county," she said.

That view is not shared by Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who said she would consider the idea.

"I am not averse to taking a look at it," she said. "I'm always open to new ideas."

Elliott, 68, a pharmacist by profession, has been a state delegate since 1987. He said his push to expand the board may be the most important piece of legislation he has proposed.

It is central to the county's future, he said, and perhaps inevitable. He noted that the renovation of the County Office Building, completed last year, included creating space for two additional commissioners.

Under the current system, many issues are decided on a 2-1 vote, meaning a commissioner must convince just one other commissioner to get a proposal approved, Elliott said. With five seats, a commissioner would need to win the votes of two colleagues -- a much tougher proposition, Elliott said.

"This is growing county. It requires a lot of deliberation. There is more deliberation when there is a lot of 3-2 decisions," Elliott said.

Charter opponents resisted change because they feared it would increase the size and cost of government. Del. Carmen Amedori, a Westminster Republican, said those fears may apply to an expanded board of commissioners.

"The more cooks you have in the kitchen, the more problems you have," she said. "I'd hate to see the imposition of taxes for two more bureaucrats. I can't see the advantages outweighing what it would cost the citizens of the county."

Elliott, however, believes the expense of two additional commissioners would be minimal. And those costs could be recouped by increased government efficiency.

"It would save money in the long run," he said.

Take a look around the rest of the state, Elliott said. Of the 10 counties with the commissioner form of government, only Cecil, Garrett and Carroll continue to use three commissioners. The rest have five, including neighboring Frederick County. And Cecil, with less than half of Carroll's 150,000 residents, voted in 1998 to expand the number of its commissioners to five in the 2002 general election.

If Carroll wants to do the same, the county needs to act quickly, Elliott said. A bill would have to be approved by the General Assembly early next year to put the question to voters in the November 2000 general election. If passed, voters would elect five commissioners by district in the general election of 2002.

In 1998, the proposal for five at-large commissioners carried four precincts: three in Eldersburg and one in Mount Airy, where some residents seek better representation in Westminster, the county seat. The five-commissioner proposal failed, 11,151-6,860.

For Sen. Larry E. Haines, the head of the Carroll delegation, those numbers accurately reflect the county's attitude toward a change.

"It was on the ballot before, and the voters rejected it. You could debate whether you get more service from five commissioners than three commissioners," he said. "I don't think it would improve with five commissioners. I'm satisfied with three commissioners."

Elliott does not believe most residents share that view. The county wants a change, Elliott said. He plans to make it a reality.

"I never felt as strong about a piece of legislation as this," he said. "It's going to be a tough sell. I have to work from the ground up. I think I have a lot of opposition among my own colleagues. I have to convince them this is important."

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