The year 2018 has left us, but not without bringing some intriguing and exciting changes in local and state politics. Two new county commissioners took their seats as two longtime members of the board were retired by term limits. Carroll County voters managed to complete the reboot of the Board of Education that started two years ago. Larry Hogan made history and was re-elected as governor of Maryland, making him only the second Republican to do so in the state. Now that the yard signs have been thrown in the trash, and the campaign literature has stopped pilling up in our mailboxes, one might think the election season is over. However, odd-numbered years mean one thing in Carroll’s small cities and towns — municipal elections.
For residents of the county’s eight municipalities — Hampstead, Manchester, Mount Airy, New Windsor, Sykesville, Taneytown, Union Bridge and Westminster — these elections are as local as it can possibly get. The men and women who win in these elections will make decisions that affect your water and sewer, local taxes, roads, zoning and public safety. Every two years, approximately half of these council members are up for re-election, and every mayor is on the ballot every four years.
Any registered voter who lives in the town limits is eligible to vote in these elections. There is not a separate voter registration for these races and none of Carroll’s municipal elections have a primary. Despite this, a disappointing number of voters cast ballots in these elections, and less than a dozen votes can sometimes decide the outcome. Every election, we hear the “every vote counts” adage, but in these small town races it is actually true. In Hampstead’s 2015 Town Council race, the winning candidate beat the runner-up by a mere four votes. For these local races, a voter turnout of 15 percent is usually considered a success. Compare that to the 62.6 percent of eligible voters who recently voted in Carroll County’s 2018 midterms, and it is obvious that most voters are not paying attention when it comes to municipal races.
The only thing more distressing than the low voter turnout is the lack of candidates in these races. In some towns, the incumbents run without a single challenger, as was the case in Union Bridge in 2015 and Manchester in 2017. Because none of the municipalities have term limits, some town officials seem to stay in office forever. Two longtime local elected officials are up for re-election this spring — Westminster Common Councilman Robert Wack is wrapping up his fourth consecutive term (that is 16 years in office!) and Mayor Ryan Warner of Manchester is serving his 20th year as a town official, having first been elected as a councilman in 1999.
Who should run for municipal office? You or someone you know may be an ideal candidate for your town council. Great candidates can come from all walks of life: An elementary school parent who is active in the parent and teacher association; a new retiree looking to be more involved in his or her community; a local sports recreation league coach; a small-business owner; or, a member of a town’s planning and zoning board. If an individual is interested in running, his or her local party’s central committee is always available to provide knowledge, support and guidance. Although all of the municipal races are nonpartisan, registered Republicans interested in seeking office are always encouraged to reach out to the Carroll County Republican Central Committee and Democrats are encouraged to do the same with their local central committee. The cutoff date to register as a candidate varies from town to town, but your local central committee can provide you with that information.
How do you know whether you live in the town limits and are therefore eligible to vote and run? Individuals often think they live in the town or city limits because they have a town or city address. However, that is not always the case. The easiest way to find out is to visit https://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/votersearch,and plug in your name, date of birth, and ZIP code. Under the “My Voting Districts” banner, look for “Municipal Districts” (it will be right above “Senatorial Districts”). If that line is there, it will say HA1 or W01 for example. If that line is not listed, you do not live within the municipal limits of a town or city.
Several prominent local and state officials got their start by holding office in Carroll County at the municipal level. Former Mount Airy Councilwoman Wendi Peters is now Gov. Hogan’s special secretary of smart growth. Commissioner Dennis Frazier begin his political career as a member of Westminster’s Common Council. Del. Haven Shoemaker got his start as a councilman and later became mayor of Hampstead.
When asked about the importance of participating in municipal elections, Shoemaker said: “A lot of folks only exercise their right to vote during presidential elections. That is a mistake. Your town government has much more of an impact on your day-to-day life than the feds ever will. Municipal elected officials are tasked with making decisions with broad implications for the greater community.”
Elections in Carroll’s eight municipalities are this May. In some of these elections, only council seats are up for grabs, while the office of mayor will be filled in others. I urge every voter who lives within the city or town limits to follow the issues, learn about the candidates (or consider becoming one), and most importantly, vote on election day. Government that governs closest to the voters governs best.