Carroll Government: The System's Broke


Carroll County voters made a terrible mistake two years ago by voting down a switch to charter government.

They are still saddled with a system of governance that is controlled by special interests; cannot make tough, but necessary, decisions, and lacks any long-range perspective.

The latest round of amendments to the county's forest conservation and stream protection ordinances vividly reveal the first of these shortcomings.

When the forest conservation ordinance was enacted last year, some of the language in it created unforeseen problems. One of the most notable involved off-conveyances -- the small parcels that farmers are entitled to carve out of their large holdings -- because the law didn't differentiate between subdividing on land plats in the land records and actual development of the land. Under the ordinance, when a landowner applied to create off-conveyance lots on land records, the tree-replanting provisions of the law kicked in.

Clearly this effect was not anticipated or desired.

County attorneys worked up a set of technical amendments to correct this drafting defect and some others in the ordinance. The intention was to make these technical corrections, but to leave the law's basic framework intact.

Opponents of the forest conservation legislation, however, see this housekeeping amendment as a window of opportunity to attack its heart. At least one county commissioner, Donald I. Dell, is willing to go along with this strategy.

If the county had a charter government, a county council, which would set policy, would have already spoken on the issue. Enforcement would be up to the county executive and the appropriate government departments.

With the commissioner form of government, there is no clear distinction between the legislative and executive functions. The result is the spectacle of having one commissioner who is on the losing side of an issue determine county policy on the issue.

As part of this effort, Mr. Dell referred the technical amendments to Charles Hollman, his private attorney -- who also represents Carroll landowners, developers and homebuilders. In his capacity as president of the Carroll County Bar Association, Mr. Hollman appointed a committee "to review" the forest and stream conservation ordinances.

This committee, using the imprimatur of the local bar, will recommend changes to the measure it failed to get when the bill was first passed.

Mr. Dell can claim that he is acting in his executive capacity and is seeking help in enforcing the law. But what we are witnessing is a transparent attempt to subvert the commissioners' earlier decision and strip the ordinance of authority to regulate tree-cutting by developers.

The same is true for the amendments to the stream ordinance, which is intended to establish buffers around county streams to prevent pollution and siltation. Groups that already lost in the legislative forum are replaying the process at the executive level in the hope of changing the outcome.

This lack of clear delineation between executive and legislative responsibilities means that the drafting of ordinances goes on forever. Under this system, people who get paid to influence legislation have the upper hand. As long as they are getting paid by their clients, they will continue to chip away at legislation.

Members of the public -- who have to earn livings and care for families before they devote time to influencing commissioners -- are the automatic losers. They don't have the stamina to keep a full-time presence at the county office building.

This melding of the legislative and executive functions also results in endless studies and little action.

The example of the Waste-to-Energy Committee effort is illustrative of inertia that pervades this board of commissioners. After months of exhaustive study, the citizens group recommended that the county increase its recycling program and create a composting plant to reduce its reliance on landfilling solid waste.

Instead of acting on these recommendations, which they solicited, the commissioners have shelved the study and are now talking about creating a solid waste authority to remove "politics" from solid waste disposal.

In four years, no progress has been made on rationalizing the county's solid waste disposal system. With the landfill expected to reach its capacity in about 12 years, the county is running out of time to deal with this problem.

Having two branches of government doesn't guarantee more success in dealing with long-range problems, but one branch can put political pressure on the other and force government to deal with issues. With the commissioner form of government, there is no internal pressure to address and resolve issues.

This board of commissioners has the tendency to focus solely on the immediate issues and crises and ignore the long-range problems. As a result, it takes an undue interest in administrative actions, and second-guesses or outright circumvents county departments heads.

Carroll's citizens deserve a government that does more than handle day-to-day operations. It needs one that is responsive to the general interests of the county and the needs of future generations.

With the current form, county residents have been short-changed.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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