Dialogue suggested on code home rule

Advocates continue push to bring issue to Nov. referendum

May 14, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Carroll County commissioners worried about hastily adopting a code home rule resolution when residents raised the issue last week, but Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said he hopes dialogue will continue on bringing the question to referendum for the November election.

"I'm not closed to the idea yet of putting it on the ballot," he said. "I don't want to quash the discussion on this because I think it's useful."

Seizing momentum from the General Assembly's failure to approve a commissioner redistricting map, Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Republican, and several Eldersburg residents urged the commissioners last week to push for more local control. The Board of Commissioners will increase from three to five members in November.

The commissioner form of government would be maintained under code home rule, although the board would gain the authority to enact, amend or appeal local laws and bonds without seeking approval from the General Assembly.

Levying additional taxes or establishing tax caps or credits -- such as the homestead tax credit and the real estate transfer tax -- would still need approval from the legislature.

Converting to code home rule is a less costly and cumbersome process than charter government, proponents said.

"It really is not a complicated process," said Eldersburg resident Ross A. Dangel, who said the Freedom Area Citizens' Council plans to publicize their support for code home rule this week.

"The county has done far more heavy lifting with community master plans," Dangel said. "Those efforts are more difficult and esoteric exercises. To think our voters can't understand this is really not giving them much credit."

While a new charter government has not been approved in the state in 33 years, Charles County most recently approved code home rule -- in 2002. In Charles, public hearings on the issue were held in August before the general election.

For code home rule to appear on Carroll's November ballot, two-thirds of the commissioners must approve a resolution and hold a minimum of two public hearings, state law stipulates.

The board would then have to adopt a code home rule referendum within 60 days of the last public hearing. If residents vote in favor of the referendum, code home rule would go into effect 30 days later under state law.

Attempts to bring charter government to Carroll failed twice in the 1990s. Former New Windsor Mayor Jack Gullo Jr., who helped draft a proposed charter in 1998, said he still wears "battle scars" from that experience.

"When push comes to shove, our form of government has worked," Gullo said. "When the question has gone before people, `Do you want to change it?' it has historically and repeatedly failed. Eventually citizens will require a more efficient form of government. But whether there's a critical mass for that to happen now? It's hard to say."

Carroll's eight municipalities have more local control to pass ordinances than the Board of Commissioners, according to code home rule advocates.

Krebs expressed frustration last week about a local weed-abatement bill that stalled for two years in the General Assembly.

"They can make a decision more efficiently in Union Bridge than we can in Carroll County," Krebs said.

Since adopting code home rule, the Charles County commissioners have approved legislation to regulate massage parlors and can set local government salaries, said Nina Voehl, a county spokeswoman.

Roger Lee Fink, Charles County's attorney, said voters were well-educated about code home rule to dispel myths that the system would increase the size and expense of government.

"Code home rule doesn't really change the way government is structured," Fink said. "But it has added a lot of order and discipline to our legislative process."

Code home rule efforts were notso successful in Frederick County.

Voters rejected the measure in a 2002 referendum, in part because "whatever people don't completely understand, they tend to be against," said John L. "Lennie" Thompson Jr., president of the Frederick Board of Commissioners.

Attack ads linking code home rule to his anti-growth stances led to the referendum's demise, said Thompson, an advocate of code home rule.

Thompson agreed that the General Assembly's inability to draw district boundaries could give code home rule a boost in Carroll County.

"That experience sort of tells even the most die-hard opponent of big government: The General Assembly is not looking out for our best interest," he said.

Though Republican Sen. Larry E. Haines, Carroll's delegation leader, believes that Carroll wasn't ready for it in the past, he said the county's government should evolve into a code home rule or charter system as the population grows.

"Having five commissioners by district is going to basically establish a future change in the government," Haines said. "I don't know if it [code home rule] would have much of a chance right now. It needs to be thought out and have more time."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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