Home rule measure to go on Carroll ballot

Approval would boost commissioners' power


After bitter clashes with the county's General Assembly delegation on taxes and redistricting this spring, Carroll County's three commissioners voted yesterday to place on the November ballot a measure that would give local officials more power.

If voters approve, Carroll will become the state's seventh code home rule county. Under code home rule, the commissioner format would be retained but the commissioners would not need General Assembly approval to enact most local laws, as they do now. That is still a step short of charter government, which involves an elected county executive and county council.

"It's not a matter of whether we vote for this or not," Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said. "It's a matter of putting it on the ballot and letting the people decide."

The home rule movement, which has surfaced in the past, gained momentum this spring after the General Assembly recessed in April without approving a bill to create five districts for an expanded commission.

A referendum passed overwhelmingly in 2004 called for increasing the board from three to five members and stipulated election by district.

But because of the wrangling, Carroll voters will again choose three commissioners running at large this year.

Code home rule would allow the commissioners to increase the board to five members without consulting state legislators.

Animosity between local officials and legislators pushed most other code home rule counties to vote for that form of government so that more local laws could be adopted at the county level, said Victor K. Tervala, a consultant for the Institute of Governmental Service at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In campaigning for the September primary, several commissioner candidates have said they favor creating the five commissioner districts before adopting code home rule. Others want to hold out for the full muscle of charter government. The current commissioners and two Democratic candidates have indicated support for code home rule.

Mary Kowalski, a Westminster Republican running for commissioner, said yesterday that voters haven't been properly educated on the measure.

The commissioners argued that information on code home rule would be publicized until the November election.

"To say that you can't decide between now and November whether or not this is a good thing or not, that's an insult to the average Carroll County voter," Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said.

Carroll's commissioners also want the power to enact a transfer tax - a fee paid when a home is sold - of up to half a percent to help pay for new schools and roads. Carroll is one of six Maryland counties without such a tax, said David Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

That has been the subject of another battle between county and state elected officials.

For three years, the commissioners have unsuccessfully lobbied the delegation for the tax and the state legislators have refused to approve it.

Under code home rule, Carroll residents would also gain the power to petition local legislation to referendum, County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender said.

That would give residents more checks and balances, said Michelle Jefferson, the candidate challenging four-term incumbent State Sen. Larry E. Haines in the Republican primary.

"Everyone I've talked to has the feeling that code home rule keeps us from being under a totalitarian delegation," Jefferson said after the home rule vote yesterday. "It gives those decisions back to the people."

Carroll voters rejected code home rule in 1968 and 1984. Efforts to institute charter government failed twice in the 1990s.

"All they have to check is for or against it, so there's nothing to confuse the issue," Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said.


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