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County Comment: Final Home Rule Charter Presented

County Comment
Final Home Rule Charter Presented
by Norman Bassett
Washington County Public Information Officer

In its regular meeting on October 30th, the Washington County Board of County Commissioners heard the final proposal by the Washington County Home Rule Charter Board.
The Charter will allow our local laws to be made here in our County under the eyes of all County residents. The County Council is required to publish notice of these proposed laws in a local paper and to hold a public hearing prior to adopting such laws. Most laws that are adopted by the Council are also subject to referendum if a sufficient number of citizens object to the law as passed. The process is much more open to the citizens of Washington County and results in increased accountability of our elected officials.
The Charter Board began deliberations in December 2006 as part of the process of bringing Home Rule to Washington County. Home rule will put Washington County in the company of the majority of counties in Maryland. Home Rule will: give county government more authority over local issues; provide more timely local decision-making free from dependence on when the General Assembly is in session; expand accountability to the citizens by increasing transparency of the legislative process and increasing opportunities for citizen input; give citizens the ability to change local government by amending the Charter if needed to respond to pressures brought about by such issues as development and growth management; and give citizens the right of referendum on matters of local legislative action.
The voters of Washington County will have the opportunity to cast ballots to adopt the Charter and Charter Home Rule in the Primary Election on February 12, 2008.
In comments to the County Commissioners, Jeanne Singer, Chair of the Board said, "The charter board circulated a draft Charter in August. At that time, we announced our desire for greater citizen input and reaction to the draft. Over the last two months, the draft Charter has been read by hundreds of citizens. Presentations have been made to dozens of local civic and political organizations. Hundreds of comments have been received related to that draft."
"As a result of those comments, the Charter Board made changes to the August draft. Overwhelmingly, the comments expressed opposition to any system of election of Council members that involved the establishment of districts. The citizens advocated an at-large election of County Council.omHom In light of the number of such comments, the Charter Board revised its draft to provide for at-large election," Singer said.
"Adoption of charter home rule will give the citizens a new right: referendum. With this right, citizens will have the right to challenge legislative action, by collecting a sufficient number of signatures. The citizens of Washington County responded favorably to this right. The feedback that the Charter Board received was to make it easier to bring issues to referendum. In response to this feedback, the final proposal reduces the issues that are exempt from referendum and makes it easier to bring issues to referendum by reducing the number of required signatures," she said.
"Besides creating referendum and establishing greater local autonomy on issues of a strictly local nature, this Charter makes another significant change in the organization of county government. The Charter Board was concerned about the current system of 5 commissioners. It is difficult for five individuals to thoroughly know the issues being discussed by the County's numerous boards and commissions (there are currently more than 50) and to also know the details of local community issues. Individuals in the southern and western parts of Washington County also expressed concern that they had not been represented on the Board of County Commissioners in over 30 years. Our research suggested that there was merit to this argument, Singer said. "We addressed these two concerns by increasing the size of the Council from 5 to 7. With seven Councilmembers, the workload would be spread over more individuals. In addition, our research also indicated that, in recent elections, the parts of the county that felt they were underrepresented would have elected Councilmembers, " she said.
Singer said, "We felt that the additional cost of two Councilmembers' salary of $30,000 each out of a budget in excess of $309 million was a cost effective investment for improved local government."
"The Board also received a significant amount of feedback relating to issues that a Charter may not address. For instance, the Charter may not give its citizens a right of recall to remove elected officials mid-term or a right of initiative to create local laws. The Charter also may not set the salaries of the Councilmembers," she said.
"We also encountered a fair number of myths relating to Charter government. For example, the Council may not, under charter home rule, create new taxes. The Council will only be able to adopt purely local laws. All other laws will continue to be adopted by the General Assembly," she said.
Singer concluded, "On behalf of the Charter Board of Washington, we thank the citizens of Washington County for the feedback they provided to us over the last two months. The Charter that has resulted is a consensus document drawn from the wide range of opinions and suggestions offered over the last 10 months. The Board urges the Charter's adoption by the citizens of Washington County in February. The full text of the Charter is available at"
For further information contact Singer at 301-991-5234.

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