Carroll County residents debate creation of women's commission


A Carroll women's commission would help women deal with economic, safety and health care issues, supporters said yesterday. But opponents contended it would become a bureaucracy using taxpayers' money to advance a liberal agenda.

About 100 people attended a public hearing yesterday morning at the County Office Building to comment on proposed county legislation, including a bill that would establish a Carroll County Commission for Women.

Del. Richard C. Matthews, a District 5A Republican, said it was the largest crowd for the annual hearing since he was elected in 1967.

Most members of the audience attended to comment on the women's commission. One hour of the two-hour hearing was divided equally between supporters and opponents of the commission.

"Women's issues only get attention when women band together and fight for them," said Cherie W. Jenkins of Winfield. "The status quo is no longer acceptable in Carroll County."

But Koreen Hughes of Eldersburg said, "If we are a majority, we should not be wanting preferential treatment. It's just another organization that is not supportive of me."

Women make up 50.7 percent of Carroll's population, according to the 1990 census.

A steering committee, chaired by Rachelle Hurwitz of Uniontown, proposed last summer that Carroll create a 15-member women's commission to help make government aware of issues that affect women.

The commission would be nonpartisan, and men could be members. The county commissioners would appoint seven members, the steering committee would appoint seven, and the two groups would agree on the 15th member.

The commissioners, with Commissioner Donald I. Dell opposed, voted in October to ask local representatives to introduce a bill in the General Assembly to create the commission.

Yesterday, the legislators listened to both sides. Mr. Matthews, chairman of the Carroll delegation, said legislators will decide in a few weeks whether to introduce the bill, which was one of nine proposed by the commissioners.

Del. Richard N. Dixon, a Democrat from District 5A, and Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, a 5B Democrat, have said they would support the bill. The other legislators have not publicly stated their opinions.

Supporters and opponents of the women's commission sat on opposite sides of the hearing room, and kept close watch on how much time each side was allotted.

Nine people spoke in support of the commission, and several others yielded their speaking time. Fifteen people spoke against the commission.

The Rev. Theresa Modesto of Sykesville, a member of the steering committee, said the debate over the women's commission had moved into the area of religion and that Ms. Hurwitz's civil rights were violated as a result.

In November, Carroll Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said at a public meeting with local delegates that she had heard the commission would exclude members based on religion.

Mrs. Gouge said at the time that state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a District 5 Republican, had told her some members of the community were concerned because Ms. Hurwitz is Jewish.

Mr. Haines said yesterday that he hadn't talked to Mrs. Gouge about the issue until the November meeting. He said he wished she had attended the hearing yesterday.

Mrs. Gouge was on her way to a conference in California.

Some men standing in the back of the room were bothered that Ms. Modesto brought up the issue.

"Maybe you should speak with Senator Haines before you put him on the spot," one said.

Irene Battalen of Westminster, a member of the Carroll County Community Relations Commission, urged the legislators to disregard the religious aspect of the debate.

"This opposition seeks to nurture fear based on ignorance, fear born of intolerance, and fear that anyone different from themselves is a threat to the community at large," she said.

Many opponents argued that a women's commission is a worthy cause, but should not be sanctioned by the government. The commission should not receive taxpayer money, they said.

Donald Frazier of Manchester said he researched women's commissions in Maryland and found that they are lobbying groups. Thirteen counties, the state and Baltimore have women's commissions.

Last year, the state women's commission supported a bill that advocated lesbians' rights, Mr. Frazier said.

"To what extent is this actually a political committee?" he asked.

Ms. Hurwitz said the women's commission is concerned about "mainstream issues -- nothing extreme."

Quoting Abigail Adams in a 1776 letter to her husband, John Adams, Ms. Hurwitz urged the legislators: "Gentlemen, don't forget the ladies. The ladies are your constituents."

Robin Frazier, Donald Frazier's wife, said women should run for office if they want a voice in government.

Pushing for women's issues in the workplace, such as day care and maternity leave, causes problems for women, said Mrs. Frazier, a mortgage loan officer in Westminster.

"The more noise I make on women's issues, the more trouble it gives me," she said.

If women work hard, they will be promoted, she said.

Maggie Watson of Westminster said women don't need a government-sanctioned group to accomplish their goals.

"I am proud to be a woman. I have never been discriminated against in this county," she said.

Other issues discussed yesterday were:

* School board performance audit.

The county commissioners want permission to audit school board management practices. A similar bill failed last year in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Three residents spoke out in support of the bill yesterday, and one spoke against it.

* Right-to-farm law.

Two farmers spoke out in favor of the law, which would help reduce complaints and lawsuits filed against farmers by suburban neighbors bothered by smells and noises.

* Gun control.

About 10 residents urged legislators to vote against gun-control measures proposed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

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