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Taylor: Tweak, don’t change, our form of local government

Having attended the county-sponsored meetings on charter government as well as those of the Carroll County Taxpayers Coalition and VOCAL, I remain against changing our form of county government. I don’t speak for either group. But what I have witnessed is frank discussions led by concerned citizens and goodhearted people with recurring themes. Those wanting change want independence from the state and a full-time elected county leader, a “face of Carroll County.” Skillfully avoided by both sides in public debate, has been the issue of the rather significant borrowing powers that would be made available to Carroll County should we adopt a charter form of government.

But what is the best system that ensures all voices are fully represented and that minority positions are protected? We already have it, the commissioner form of government. Each of our elected officials is at the table forming policies in full view of the public and we, the public, get all the protections afforded to us by Maryland’s open meetings laws.

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Everyone wants more independence. We wouldn’t be Americans if we didn’t. However, as one of our elected officials said, “counties are not sovereign;” counties are creatures of the state. Charter counties, as well as commissioner counties, all go to the state for their wants and wishes.

During the last session, the Carroll County delegation proposed five bills; the surrounding charter government counties proposed an equal number or more (Baltimore County five, Frederick 10, Howard eight). From time to time, there might be a housekeeping item here and there that Carroll County delegation needs to take to Annapolis but the simple truth is that though the years, our county commission has been granted more and more authority over purely county administrative matters. This is not the same county commissioner form of government as it was in pre-revolutionary days.

This leads us to the representation and leadership concerns. At one of the citizen meetings, a good point was made: each Carroll voter has only one representative who represents one-fifth of the county. Each citizen had more sway over our former system with three members elected at-large, but some thought there was a need that each area of the county be represented so we changed to this weird district system. This might lead you to believe that we need charter and a county executive elected at-large, but remember we lose having the minority opinions openly debated and having an equal weight in the decision-making process. Interestingly, I have heard agreement from people with different perspectives that we should elect members to the county government living in various districts but elected by all the county voters. I agree that Carroll County citizens deserve more than a one-fifth representation in their county government.

The “face of Carroll County” leadership concern is easily fixed. Provide for a process that elects a presiding officer, President of the Board [differing from the current board president], for four years. That person could ceremonially represent Carroll County and formally represent us in meetings in Annapolis bringing any issues back to the county commission to be deliberated. Any county executive would need to bring concerns back to the county for decision making and a president of the commission can do the same. I think It is noteworthy to point out that during the county’s informational presentation, one of our current commissioners asked the panel of assembled experts if they thought Carroll would have more clout in Annapolis being represented by a county executive. The expert replied that he believed clout comes from the population size of the jurisdiction, not the form of county government.

So I propose a tweak to our current county commissioner system to create an elected leader, the “face of Carroll County”, and provide for full-time representation. Retain five commissioners. Candidates either run for two at-large seats (the highest at-large vote-getter becomes the president and the second-highest vote-getter becomes the vice-president) or run for one of three seats representing districts but are elected at-large (by all the county voters). This entails dividing the county into three equal districts as opposed to five. All commissioners continue to have an equal vote on the board. Retain the two-term limit, initially set the pay of each commissioner to 75% of the Carroll County median household income — in order to adjust the pay we would need to go to the General Assembly every four years, a very public process, unlike charter government which sets up its own compensation boards — offer county health insurance benefits to commissioners during the period of their terms in office and eliminate pensions for county commissioners.

We have a good system of county government but with a few tweaks we could have a great system which fully represents the people of Carroll County and provides open public debate providing for many points of view.

Sallie Taylor writes from Eldersburg.

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