Few back altering election rules

Many officials are cool to Haines' plan to make the commissioners race countywide next year

October 23, 2005|By MARY GAIL HARE | MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTER

The leader of Carroll County's legislative delegation has marshaled little support for his proposal to revamp the commissioner election next year and make it a countywide contest for five seats.

Under the proposal by Sen. Larry E. Haines, each candidate would still run to represent a single district, but candidates would campaign across the entire county.

A 2004 referendum to expand the board from three to five members, elected by district, won overwhelming support from voters. The Maryland attorney general has reviewed Haines' proposal and said the change would not require another referendum.

Haines remains unruffled by the opposition from his colleagues.

"I am usually working against the odds," said Haines, head of the county's all-Republican delegation. "It is good to have differences of opinion."

Haines has organized a public hearing Tuesday to gauge voters' support for choosing all five commissioners countywide.

"I want to hear what voters have to say on this issue, and I am hoping for a big turnout," he said. "I have had plenty of inquiries from people who prefer to vote for all five, and that is why I am putting this out there."

Several delegation members say they will oppose any measure to alter the outcome of the 2004 referendum.

"I strongly oppose any effort to overturn an election," said Del. Susan W. Krebs, who represents South Carroll. "We have to uphold the overwhelming will of voters and maintain the integrity of the electoral process."

Del. Donald B. Elliott, who wrote the original expansion bill, said, "I cannot support overturning a legal election. Five commissioners, elected by district, prevailed. I don't buy into the argument that says people didn't understand what they were voting for."

Many constituents have told Haines they misunderstood the ballot question and want the option of voting for five commissioners.

"I think the people who are saying they didn't understand the ballot are the people who voted against the referendum," said Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell. "It's a sour grapes reaction."

Setting aside the vote "would be a dangerous precedent to set," Shewell said.

Constituents consider voting for a single commissioner a loss of power that limits their choice of county leadership, Haines said.

"People want more voting power, not less," Haines said. "They want to be able to tell any one of the five commissioners, `I voted for you.'"

Krebs countered, "You don't change the outcome of an election because you didn't get the result you wanted."

Redistricting committee members said Haines' proposal runs counter to the referendum. Janet B. Jump, who led the seven-member committee, said Haines, who represents one area, should understand the concept.

"A commissioner will have power within the district," Jump said. "Each district has a different personality with different needs. We are not a cookie-cutter county."

Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, whose district includes South Carroll, said he is reserving judgment until after the hearing but added, "My gut feeling is to go with what the voters wanted."

Sen. David R. Brinkley, who represents part of Carroll and Frederick counties, said he has not heard a compelling argument for "thwarting the will of the voters."

"I think people understood what they were voting for," he said.

Without his colleagues' support, Haines said, he doubts he will move forward with the proposed changes. The hearing and any written comments that result from it will help him make a final decision, he said.

The hearing will also give residents an opportunity to comment on the proposed new districts.

The redistricting committee, appointed by the current board of commissioners, carved the county into five districts of equal population and has recommended a map that places towns with common interests together, melds two major growth areas and keeps the Westminster environs as a single jurisdiction.

"I want to make sure the map addresses community interests, not just those of municipalities," Brinkley said. "I want to get the best representation for citizens at my end of the county."

Legislators hope to introduce the bill as an emergency measure early in the 2006 session. Once it wins approval from the General Assembly -- a courtesy usually extended on local issues -- the governor could sign the bill into law within as little as 10 days.

"It is important to move as quickly as we can to give candidates enough time to campaign," Elliott said.

Kittleman said he expects the commissioner bill to be enacted halfway into the legislative session. That should give perspective candidates ample time to campaign and raise funds before the September primary, he said.

The bill will also address residency requirements -- a least six months and possibly a year -- for commissioner candidates.

The local statute for electing commissioners, which dates to the county's 19th-century founding, specifies the number of commissioners but not where they live.

"Residency is even more important now that we have five districts," Elliott said.

The hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in Room 003 of the County Office Building, 225 N. Center St., Westminster. mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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