Charter petition change assailed

Amendment could make referendum process harder

More signatures would be needed

Council term-limit rules also might be reworded

Howard County

January 19, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Thousands more signatures would be required to petition a Howard County law to referendum if the recommendation of a 15-member Charter Review Commission is accepted - angering leaders of a failed petition drive last summer.

Howard's 1968 charter requires 5 percent of registered voters - to a maximum of 5,000 signatures - to put an issue on the ballot (other than changing the charter itself, which requires 10,000). But the commission wants to remove the maximum limit and adhere to the percentage requirement, meaning almost 7,900 would be needed. The panel rejected raising the standard to 10 percent of voters.

"It's sad, honestly, from my perspective," said James Oglethorpe, president of the Howard County Taxpayers Association, which gathered 7,128 signatures in a bid to force a vote on County Executive James N. Robey's income tax increase. County Solicitor Barbara Cook ruled that tax increases may not be legally challenged via referendum.

Oglethorpe said he construed the commission's approval of the change as Robey's effort to discourage petition drives. "It could preclude a future drive from being successful," Oglethorpe said.

But Robey and commission Chairwoman Ann Balcerzak said the proposal to drop the 5,000-name maximum came from the commission, not from the executive.

In 1968, the number of voters in Howard County was 22,681, state election officials said, compared with 157,866 today.

"Five percent of registered voters is a very fair representation, and it does represent the will of the people," Robey said through county communications director Victoria Goodman. "On the other hand, anything less than that may not."

Oglethorpe said he believes that "the county executive is afraid to have the will of the people expressed outside of when they vote every four years." Robey, he said, "is uncomfortable with having the will of the people expressed last summer. It was an embarrassment to him."

Taylor agreed, arguing that "we don't have any history in Howard County of spurious or superfluous charter change petitions. Frankly, I think they should have gone the other direction and lowered [the signature requirement]."

However, former councilman C. Vernon Gray said that because the county is growing and the number of voters increasing, it's only fair to keep the number of signatures required on a petition in proportion.

Increasing the number of required signatures for referendum is one of the few substantive changes proposed by the charter commission, which is preparing its report on 23 approved changes that members will release next month. Balcerzak declined to comment on the proposals, saying they would all be discussed in the commission's report.

Most are technical revisions, such as the three that would remove the antiquated words "Metropolitan Commission" from three obscure provisions.

A more significant change would ease the three-term limit on County Council members to consecutive terms instead of covering a lifetime. But the group rejected other ideas such as giving the council more power to restore budget cuts and providing the county executive with line-item veto authority.

The term-limit revision would allow Gray to run in 2006, although he downplayed that idea last week. "I didn't support term limits for the council. Let voters make that determination," he said.

Gray served five terms on the Howard County Council, but the imposition of a three-term limit forced him off in 2002. The Democrat ran for state Senate but lost to Republican Sandra B. Schrader; he said he would likely have run for another office anyway.

John Taylor, a slow-growth advocate who was one of a handful of county residents to testify at the commission's three public hearings, said he agrees that council term limits should "not involve a lifetime prohibition."

The commission also recommended a charter revision allowing the County Council to revise how a council vacancy would be filled. Instead of a political party appointing a new member, the council could pass legislation providing for a special election.

A super-majority of at least four of the five County Council members must approve any commission proposal before it can appear on the November election ballot.

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