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Howard County Council to vote on Charter Commission recommendations next week

Howard County residents are days away from knowing which, if any, changes to the county’s governing document will appear on their ballots in November.

The Howard County Council met June 24 to discuss recommended changes to the Howard County Charter made by the Charter Review Commission. Those proposals, after council discussions and amendments, will become November’s referendum questions.

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The Charter Review Commission, a 15-member group which convenes once every eight years, presented their recommendations on May 1. The County Council took some of the commission’s recommendations and turned them into legislation for the council to discuss. Some of the 12 bills introduced by council members mirrored the commission’s recommendations, while others were new recommendations altogether.

Yolanda Sonnier, chair of the commission, called the charter the county’s constitution.

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“It lays out how the county is going to operate and it lays out the different rights for the different entities and branches in the county,” said Sonnier, an Ellicott City resident.

Sonnier said many community members are unaware of what exactly is in the county’s charter, and while the group tried to solicit feedback from the community only 12 people came to the four public meetings the commission hosted.

Since April 10, 2019, the commission met 28 times to review each section of the charter, ensuring that it is clear and functional and will be for the following eight years, until the next time the commission meets.

One of the recommendations the commission made was increasing the size of the County Council, from five members to seven. Sonnier and the committee reviewed population data from the last time the increased in size, from three members to five in 1968. They also reviewed the growth since the last census and the last charter review commission.

Community members who testified, said that increasing the number of council members would give greater representation throughout the county, Sonnier said.

That recommendation, however, was not turned into legislation by any of the five county council members. Council member Christiana Mercer Rigby said the decision to increase the size of the council involves more than just adding two new members.

“It would require a real look at how the administration office needs to expand to meet those needs,” Rigby said. “I’m not sure that more politicians create more solutions.”

One of the recommendations that did become legislation was the shortening of appointment terms for citizen boards from five years to three.

“Some of the other feedback we received was that getting people to serve on a commission for five years is a long commitment,” Sonnier said. “Community members want to get involved, but they weren’t sure they could commit to that time.”

Council member Opel Jones said that if the legislation passes there will be more volunteerism from Howard County residents, engaging them in local government.

Legislation changing the county’s charter requires four votes in favor. The County Council will vote on the 12 bills on July 6. If some or all of the bills are tabled, they will be voted on July 29, just before the deadline.

The county’s office of law has to certify the referendum questions, and provide them to the Board of Elections by July 31, in order for the questions to appear on the November 2020 ballot.

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