Objections aside

March 20, 2012|Editorial from The Aegis

In all the commotion over issues with the planned trash transfer station in Joppa and the related matter of the status of the waste to energy plant on the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, a key detail sometimes gets lost: Two members of the Harford County Council are responsible for most of the critical questions on the subject.

Though it seems inconsequential enough, the reality is this kind of divide was predicted when the county charter was amended years ago so as to do away with all the county council members having to face all of the county's voters.

The change in question, the move away from countywide elections in favor of each council district electing only its own council member, was approved by the county's voters on the logic that the members of each district should be able to select a representative without interference from voters in other districts. While this sounds nice, most of the county council's substantial actions are on countywide issues, generally relating to budget matters: how much money to allocate to the county school system, how much for the sheriff's office.

When the council allocates a certain amount of money to the schools or the sheriff, it has relatively little say regarding which council district gets what.

There is one key exception to the rule that most county council decisions relate to countywide issues. That exception is land use matters, be they rezoning issues or decisions about where to put potentially unwanted county facilities like trash transfer stations.

Ironically, the one key function where a single district ends up being more affected by a council decision is also the function where in-district only representation all but guarantees the district in question will end up with something it doesn't want.

The solid waste disposal issues affecting Joppa and Edgewood illustrate the point very clearly. Voters in the Edgewood-Joppa district send a single council member to represent them, and also have a theoretical one sixth say in electing the county council president. To date, the Joppa-Edgewood councilman, Dion Guthrie, has been outspoken in his questioning of the trash transfer station. He has been joined, to some degree, by the Fallston area councilman, Joe Woods. While Woods' position on the matter may have an altruistic aspect to it, the political reality is that the trash transfer station has been moved into his district from Guthrie's thanks to post-census reapportionment.

While the other council members, the county council president included, have been involved in the waste disposal issues, they haven't been nearly as vocal on the subject as the two who represent the affected community. The reason is simple: There are potential sites for waste transfer stations all over the county. It could end up at Scarboro Landfill in the north county district. There's space for it at the old Tollgate Landfill site in the Bel Air district. Closer to Havre de Grace is the old Mullins Landfill site. No doubt a site or two could be found in the Fallston district or the Churchville area, if the issue was pushed.

To date, the only other site to get public attention for the trash transfer site is in Aberdeen, and that site was rather quickly given the brush-off. Stated reasons aside, the reality is a site has been selected and as long as four of the six single district council members hang together, they won't have to deal with voters upset about a new trash transfer station in their respective districts.

This contrasts sharply with a comparable situation in the late 1980s and early 1990s when all seven council members were elected countywide. In those days, a rubble landfill just west of Havre de Grace was nearly railroaded through the county approval process. It became a countywide election issue in 1990 and every council member who had come out in favor of the rubble landfill was turned out of office, thanks in no small part to the level of opposition that came from the voters in the affected districts. Those elected to the council, by contrast, were all outspoken in their opposition to the landfill and the project was stopped.

What's likely to happen in this situation is the Joppa trash transfer station will be approved (though no one has fully answered the question of why it's needed as a public facility in the first place). To some of those who live in the county's other districts, this may come as a relief, but the unfortunate reality is any of the county's districts could easily end up in the same situation as long as they are able to vote only for, or against, one council member, plus the county council president.

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