Commission pondering changes to charter

Few speak at hearings, but panel considering more than 50 proposals

Howard County

October 01, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Pat Dornan and John W. Taylor may think a recall provision in Howard County's charter would be a good idea, but Maryland's attorney general ruled eight years ago it is unconstitutional for local governments.

Still, with more than 50 other possible changes to the county charter under consideration by a 15-member Charter Review Commission, there are plenty of ideas from which to choose.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming for the public. I think our job is to prioritize what we want to do," said Ann M. Balcerzak, the commission's chairwoman.

In 1996, after the last review, voters approved nine of 13 issues that made it to the ballot, the most important of which established a redistricting commission to recommend new political boundary lines after each census.

This year's crop of proposals ranges from increasing the number of signatures it would take to petition a law to referendum, to having a larger County Council, to mundane housekeeping changes that merely delete words duplicated in state law.

All the proposals are listed under County Council on the government's Web site, www. co.ho.md.us/.

The commission intends to continue accepting ideas through this month, Balcerzak said, and then spend weeks deciding which ones to recommend to the County Council - possibly by January.

By getting 10,000 voters to sign a petition, residents can also place a charter question on the November 2004 ballot.

A petition drive to limit tax increases in the charter is exactly what he has in mind, Dornan said, if the County Council does not approve the idea first.

Dornan re-activated his Howard County Taxpayers Association after becoming outraged at County Executive James N. Robey's income tax increase, which moved the county's portion of the state tax from Maryland's third-lowest rate to the maximum legal limit, starting Jan. 1. Dornan spearheaded an effort to petition the tax increase to referendum and collected more than 7,100 names, but putting taxes on the ballot was ruled illegal.

So far, despite the tax controversy and another over school construction funding, residents have not shown much interest in charter review.

Only five people - including Dornan and Taylor - appeared at the commission's two public hearings combined. A third hearing is scheduled at the Lisbon fire hall Oct. 16.

Dornan alone appeared at the first hearing, and Taylor, a slow-growth advocate and former candidate, testified at the second, along with Grace Kubofcik, who served on the county's first charter commission, Ann Wittik-Bravmann, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, and Sharon Wissel, representing the county's League of Women Voters chapter.

Kubofcik and Taylor suggested a larger County Council to keep up with population growth, though Taylor suggested having full-time, higher-paid members serving two-year council terms to make them more accountable. Kubofcik opposed the idea of a tax cap, which she believes would hurt the county.

Whether any of these ideas ends up on the ballot is not clear.

Several speakers favored filling vacancies that occur during the first two years of a County Council term by election rather than appointment by the departing member's political party.

Wissel said the League of Women Voters would like to remove the three-term limit on County Council members to let voters decide who and for how long someone should represent them.

Taylor and Dornan like the idea of a legal way to recall a county executive or council member; Taylor included judges, too, although he agreed that "the founders understood that pure democracy probably would not work well."

Recall, however, is not legal at the local government level under Maryland's constitution, according to a 1995 attorney general's opinion in a Caroline County case.

Both men are also opposed to increasing the number of signatures needed to bring a law to referendum from 5,000 to 10 percent of the registered voters, a change that would roughly triple the minimum.

Robey said he believes the charter does not need big changes - just "minor tweaking" - and some ideas, such as cutting elective terms to two years from four, are "ridiculous. The first year or 18 months, you're just learning," he said.

County Councilman Allan H. Kittleman, a western county Republican, generally agreed and said he wants to keep a strong executive-style government.

That means he probably would oppose allowing the County Council to have the power to increase spending other than for schools, and he also likely would oppose raising the number of signatures required for referendum petitions.

"I don't want to make a sweeping change. It's difficult for voters to understand, and I think our county runs really well," Kittleman said.

Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said he has been too immersed in comprehensive rezoning to give charter proposals much thought.

His philosophy, he said, is "the less changed [in the charter] the better."

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