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Gordon: Should Carroll revert to commissioners elected at-large?

On July 25, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners voted to postpone any movement on charter government and will now wait a year before formally discussing charter again. This decision was made after learning of a limited window of opportunity to qualify charter government as a question on the 2020 ballot, the potential financial costs of approximately $400,000, the formation of a charter writing committee and the ability for opposition to the charter writing committee causing committee elections.

Regardless of one’s personal thoughts for or against the charter or commissioner form of government, one comment at the meeting left an interesting question to ponder.

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Among those who spoke at the meeting was former Commissioner Donald Dell who commented that the people of Carroll County need to go back to electing their county commissioners at-large. He stated that he believed that any government is only as good as the people you elect to it. The former commissioner’s comments are something that appears to be quietly echoing in our county and could be gaining some traction from the public.

In 2004, Carroll County voters approved legislation that expanded the number of county commissioners from three to five. The five commissioners were to be elected from five districts, as opposed to the previous three commissioners elected at-large. The change occurred in 2010 due to the Maryland General Assembly not approving it in time for the 2006 election. In 2010, Carroll County held the first election under the five-member board elected by district. Perhaps former Commissioner Dell’s recent comments and the current conversations on changing the form of our current county government are bringing some ideas to the surface.

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I’ve spoken to a number of voters countywide who have expressed concerns as they see flaws in the current five commissioners by district form. One concern is that Carroll has “County” commissioners not “District” commissioners, but that they do not feel that as a constituent that they are equally represented by all if there is a concern in their district.

In various parts of the county, some individuals mentioned that when contacting the commissioners prior to an issue being brought up for a vote that they were told to speak directly to their commissioner regarding the topic.

One example mentioned to me of this would be the Freedom Plan in the southern part of Carroll. Some residents in the Sykesville/Eldersburg area expressed the opinion that they believed other commissioners do not have a direct vested interest at times as these are not issues that affect their district directly. Given that topics like the Freedom Plan do affect the county as a whole, one would hope that this is not an accurate notion that some may hold.

A second concern is that when we look at other elected offices — whether sheriff, board of education, clerk of the courts, our judges, or even our county delegation — all are elected at-large. Why should our county commissioners be any different? Another concern is that given that our commissioners serve the people of Carroll County and are elected to a position that oversees a budget of over $400 million dollars shouldn’t the entire public at-large have a say in those who serve the public?

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Does the current form of district voting cause some type of voter disenfranchisement even though the people of Carroll County previously voted in this type of government? Some voters mentioned that they were confused and cite disinformation when they previous voted for the referendum to change from three commissioners to five. They mention that they believed it was to be five commissioners elected at-large.

Given the postponement of charter government discussions and the concerns of some citizens regarding the district form, perhaps a hybrid commissioner form of government would be a good fit. How about maintaining the current districts and those elected county commissioner would have to maintain residence in their respective districts, but allow the people of Carroll County the right to vote for all five? We don’t elect leaders when we vote, but representatives and perhaps the people of Carroll County deserve to have a hand in all who they elect.

Tom Gordon writes from Westminster. He writes every other Saturday. Email him at tgordonwrites@gmail.com

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