Support builds for adding 2 to board

County commission bill OK by delegation looks likely

Residents would vote in 2004

January 27, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A bid to expand the county board of commissioners from three to five members appears to be gaining momentum, with a large community group from South Carroll throwing its support behind the idea and members of the county's General Assembly delegation predicting that the issue is likely headed for referendum.

The county's delegation is to vote tomorrow on a bill, drafted by Del. Donald B. Elliott, that would allow voters to decide whether the board should be expanded. If the delegation approves the bill, as expected, the General Assembly likely will go along with the Carroll representatives' wishes and the matter could be placed before voters next year, lawmakers said this week.

"This is a good step and you are doing it in time," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican whose district includes South Carroll. "Elliott's bill is going to pass and you will have it on the ballot."

Kittleman issued his prediction at a meeting last week of the Freedom Area Citizens Council. The council, formed about six years ago to act as an unofficial liaison between the commissioners and smaller community groups, released a position statement in favor of a larger commission.

The majority of South Carroll residents live in unincorporated Eldersburg and many complain they have little say in government. The community group said it favors election by district.

"We would be hard-pressed not to support anything that means more representation for our area. This certainly is in our best interests," said Ross Dangel, chairman of the Freedom group.

Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of Carroll's all-Republican delegation, has opposed past efforts to expand the board, but he says he would not block the bill that would place the issue on the November 2004 ballot.

At large or by district

Any debate before the delegation's vote on the bill has centered on whether the commissioners would be elected at large or by district, said Haines. He favors a board elected countywide as the three commissioners are now.

"Election by district does not hold them all accountable to the entire county," Haines said. "Without a county executive, some districts could get hurt."

Elliott's bill calls for an expanded board of commissioners to be elected by district.

"It is no different than it is with our legislative delegation," Elliott said. "We are elected regionally and we make decisions for all of Carroll County."

Haines said voters should be given the chance to decide whether the board should be bigger, but he will vote against the measure when it appears on the ballot. "I don't think the expansion will accomplish anything to improve county government," he said.

Time is right

Elliott, a five-term delegate from Union Bridge, sponsored a bill that led to a 1998 referendum in which voters rejected a proposal to expand the board. He chose to introduce the bill this year to give county voters time to study the matter.

"I think a population near 160,000 has matured to this type of governance and will see its merits," he said. "Five members offer greater dialogue and experience."

If the proposal wins voter approval, the commissioners would appoint a seven-member panel - three each from the Republican and Democratic central committees and one from the board of elections - to draw district lines.

Haines blocked a similar proposal last year because he said he did not want it to interfere with the gubernatorial election. Elliott appears to have the delegation's backing this year.

"It sounds like we will be going for it," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, who represents the newly drawn District 9B in South Carroll. "We are not efficiently and effectively working given the size of the board now."

An expansion would eliminate the persistent 2-1 votes that have stymied previous commissioner boards - two commissioners could collaborate and effectively dictate decisions to their colleague.

During the previous board's tenure, Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier consistently voted together, leaving the third commissioner, Julia Walsh Gouge, with a limited say in decisions.

If the expansion proposal is approved by voters, it would take effect in 2006.

Charter government

A proposal to install a charter government with an executive and a county council also failed on the 1998 ballot. South Carroll was the only district to support the move to charter.

Krebs said she remains a firm supporter of charter government, but she will work for the expansion proposal as a way to increase efficiency.

"I have been outspoken about charter, but I don't know if the county is ready for it," Krebs said. "This board of commissioners can draw the five districts and then, if we want to, we can move into charter later."

Haines said he expects charter government for the county eventually.

"Carroll is approaching the threshold where the change will be to charter government," he said. "In the next decade, charter will pass in Carroll County."

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