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Council OKs altered referendum requirement, other charter amendments

Should the number of signatures needed for referendum be changed to 5 percent of the people in Howard County who voted for governor in the last gubernatorial election, effectively raising the number?

Should all persons, not just Howard residents, have access to county public records, and should such records be made available through at least one electronic medium?

Should the county be able to carry over grant funds from one fiscal year to the next?

Voters will get to decide the answers to those questions and more in November, as the County Council Thursday approved five amendments to the county charter to be put on the 2012 ballot.

After Howard County Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley advised the council that having more than five questions on the ballot would discourage voters from answering all of them, council members voted down four other charter amendments. Members said they would consider putting the failed amendments on the 2014 ballot.

Council member Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, withdrew a charter amendment he sponsored that would have raised the number of four-year terms council members can serve from three to four. He cited Mickley's advise as his reasoning.

"It's the sponsor's prerogative," he said of his decision to withdraw the proposal, instead of allowing the council to vote it, like the others the members decided were not priorities for the 2012 ballot.

The charter amendments the council passed were all recommended by the Charter Review Commission, which met several times last year.

The only charter amendment the council passed that is likely to stir up any controversy is the tweak in the county rule on referendum petitions.

Currently the charter says: "The referendum petition against any such law shall be sufficient if signed by five per centum of the registered voters of the county, but in any case not less than 1,500 nor more than 5,000 signatures shall be required."

The new language would read: "The referendum petition against any such law shall be sufficient if signed by five per centum of the qualified voters of the county calculated upon the whole number of votes cast in the county for governor at the last preceding gubernatorial election."

In 2010, Howard County had 107,804 vote cast for governor. Five percent of that is 5,390.

In suggesting the amendment, the majority of commission members felt the language should be updated in a way that would allow the signature requirement to change as the population changes.

However, some commission members and residents feel it's proven difficult to get 5,000 signatures — especially as the Board of Elections in past cases has thrown out many signatures for non compliance with strict state rules — and there is no need to effectively raise the requirement.

The other four amendments the council passed would:

• change the section regarding public access to allow all persons, not just county residents, access to public records, in accordance with the Maryland Public Information Act;

• change the number of hours the council administrator has to post a copy of an emergency bill after its filing from four hours to 12 hours, as well as require copies of legislation, the county budget and other information to be posted "in at least one electronic medium readily available to the public;"

• allow the county to carry over grant funds from one fiscal year to the next; and

• remove occupation from the list of things to be considered in councilmanic redistricting to align with court rulings that occupation can't be factor, as well as make other technical changes.

One of the charter amendments that failed was a proposal from Council member Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, to limit contingency funds to 3 percent for each separate operating fund in the budget. The 3-percent rule already applies to total general fund revenues, but Fox wanted the 3 percent to apply separately to the fire tax revenues, since they are put into their own fund.

The council voted Fox's proposal down in 3-2 vote, with Watson supporting it.

The other three charter amendments the council voted down would have:

• required the council to pass a law establishing procedures for amending capital projects after the budget for the fiscal year has already been adopted;

• allow the council to approving up to two 30-day extensions, instead of just one, to the life of a bill, which the charter says is 65 days; and,

• added being convicted of or pleading nolo contendere to a felony as cause for forfeiture of office.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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