Plan aims to expand board

Item on Nov. 2 ballot proposes 5 commissioners

Would be elected by district

Critics note cost

backers predict better government

Election 2004

October 04, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

At the polls next month, Carroll County voters will choose a president and vice president, a U.S. senator and representative, an appeals court judge, two school board members and, maybe, a new form of government.

The Nov. 2 ballot includes one referendum: a proposal to expand the county Board of Commissioners from three to five members. And, instead of electing the commissioners to represent the entire county, the new board would be elected by yet-to-be-determined districts. If the referendum passes, a bipartisan committee would draw the districts and five commissioners would take office in 2006.

"I feel really strongly that the time has come for a change in our form of governance for the future," said referendum sponsor Del. Donald B. Elliott, whose legislative district straddles Carroll and Frederick counties. "As we increase in population, our problems become more numerous and complex. We need a broader intellectual and experience base. There would be better decisions based on increased dialogue on the issues."

Campaigning for and against the proposal has been minimal.

Elliott has spoken to community groups. Signs saying "Vote 5" are cropping up along highways. But no debates or forums are planned.

"I think people are putting a lot of thought into the presidential election and not paying much attention to the commissioner issue," said Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr.

But opponents are speaking out and placing ads in newspapers.

"It will cost more and it could lead to charter," said James Reter, a Carroll County Republican Central Committee member who is campaigning against the measure.

In one of the poorest turnouts in county history, about 20 percent of county voters defeated the board expansion, along with a referendum for charter that would have replaced commissioners with a county executive, in a May 1998 special election. In the 2000 presidential election, nearly 80 percent of registered voters in the county went to the polls.

"That special election was not a fair evaluation of the issue," Elliott said. "A presidential election will give us a maximum turnout."

Costs and benefits

The benefits - "savings exacted by better decisions" - would offset the costs, he said.

Carole Hammen, director of Carroll's human resources department, said $250,000 annually would be a conservative estimate of cost for adding two commissioners with their $45,000 annual salaries, plus benefits and expenses. They would each need an assistant. The county would have to redesign the commissioner space, although the most recent remodeling included five commissioner offices.

Elliott won the support of other county delegation members who voted to allow the measure to go to referendum. But Sen. Larry E. Haines, leader of the county's all-Republican delegation, and Del. Nancy R. Stocksdale said they oppose election by district.

"Elliott has been pushing for this for years, so we said it should go to referendum," Haines said. "But I am not happy with the individual districts. I would prefer all five be elected at-large so all the voters could weigh in on each candidate and all the commissioners would represent all the voters."

Stocksdale said, "We have three votes for commissioner now. By district, it would be like taking away two of those votes."

Del. Susan W. Krebs disagreed, saying a commissioner elected to represent one district would better serve the constituency, she said.

"It is hard to know the needs of 160,000 people," Krebs said. "If you are representing one area, you can bring all those issues to the table."

Incumbent Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge also is concerned about election by district.

"Each commissioner would have to protect his or her own turf and that would make budgeting more difficult," Gouge said. "I don't think the commissioners would look at the broad view because it would be natural to fight for your district."

Elliott insists that election by district brings government closer to the people.

"It is not unlike the legislature," he said. "I represent one area but we make decisions that affect the whole county in a fair way. We are all answerable to the people."

Contentious past

The expansion may be a belated reaction to previous, more contentious boards in which one commissioner was consistently shut out of decisions, officials said. The typically unanimous votes on the present board eliminate the dissention as well as the vital element of debate, said Elliott.

Sen. David R. Brinkley, who represents Carroll and Frederick counties, said, "In essence, with three, you can have two people running the county and one locked out. With five, the public would have better access and the responsibilities are more spread out."

Frederick County has had a five-member board since the 1970s. John "Lennie" Thompson Jr., president of the Frederick board, said he is often the odd man out on 4-to-1 votes, but he insists that "five heads are better than three."

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