Carroll commissioners delay police proposal

August 08, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

The creation of a Carroll County police force was put on hold yesterday after the Board of Commissioners voted to take no action on an ordinance to form the agency.

Instead, the commissioners might set up a committee to look further into addressing the growing county's law-enforcement needs.

Had it been adopted, the ordinance would have gone to referendum in November, allowing residents a say on whether the county should have its own police force with an appointed police chief. The deadline for adding the item to the ballot is later this month.

The 2-1 vote represents at least a temporary pause in a lengthy, contentious debate on the future of law enforcement in the county. It comes after the General Assembly passed a bill this spring requiring a referendum on the measure - legislation introduced after Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning and others protested the board's October vote to switch from the Maryland State Police resident trooper program.

The two commissioners who voted for the motion to table the ordinance, Julia Walsh Gouge and Dean L. Minnich, objected to the General Assembly bill, saying commissioners have the authority to make law-enforcement decisions.

"I will not vote positive on a bill that would take away the rights of future boards of commissioners to provide law enforcement," said Gouge, explaining her desire to "put on hold for now" the adoption. "We are not ready to move forward with [the] future [of] law enforcement."

Commissioner Michael D. Zimmer opposed the motion despite Gouge's appeals, saying he was willing to see the item submitted to a popular vote. "I just cannot join you," he said.

Gouge proposed convening a group to further study the issue and then have meetings throughout the county to get information to residents.

Steve Powell, the commissioners' chief of staff, later said that probably means he will resume the creation of a task force with a mix of members, including law enforcement officials.

An 'attack'

During yesterday's meeting, the commissioners had a heated exchange with Tregoning, which he later described as a "personal and professional attack against me and the office."

"I was looking out for the interest of the taxpayers and the public," Tregoning said to the board, explaining his efforts on behalf of a referendum.

All three commissioners have said they believe that an appointed chief, rather than an elected sheriff, would be better to lead a county force - a point Zimmer reaffirmed yesterday.

But in public hearings and meetings this year, many residents advocated the expansion of the Sheriff's Office to become the lead agency and accommodate growing law-enforcement needs, a move that Tregoning has supported.

In introducing the bill requiring a referendum, several members of the county's General Assembly delegation said they wanted to give residents a say in the matter.

Gouge and Minnich testified against the bill.

Yesterday, Minnich said he didn't think the board had made mistakes in the process, although it could have given residents the information in a better way.

"I don't want to apologize for doing things the way they were supposed to be done," Minnich said, responding to statements from Zimmer and Gouge that some things in their decision to transition from the state police to a county department could have been handled differently.

Tregoning said after the meeting that another study into county law-enforcement needs was not necessary, as several have been done over the years. But he would volunteer to participate, he said.

"I will cooperate fully with this board or any other board to ensure public safety," he said. "The only thing I'm interested in is what's best for public safety."

'Right to vote'

The state legislation requiring a referendum on the creation of a police force expires Dec. 31, 2010. Gouge said she plans to ask for the date to be moved up to 2009, a change that Del. Tanya Thornton Shewell said yesterday has "nil" chance.

"This is just denying the people the right to vote on such an important issue as public safety," the Republican lawmaker said of the vote.

Zimmer said he would continue working with fellow commissioners on the police issue.

"We have to work together; we have to work cooperatively," he said.

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