County Council set to weigh 34 proposed changes to charter


Look at the list of 34 proposed charter changes that the Howard County Council will begin reviewing this morning and you might conclude that the charter writers got it all wrong when they penned the county's legal framework 30 years ago.

But if public criticism of the charter is your gauge, then maybe the charter writers got it right. A recent series of hearings inviting people to discuss and recommend changes to the charter has been virtually ignored.

Ultimately, the question of what changes, if any, should be made to it will be decided by voters next year. Although largely ignored by the public thus far, the charter-review process could result in changes that have important implications for the way Howard County is governed.

"It is an examination of the total outlook of government," says Councilman Darrel Drown of Ellicott City. "Do we need to do everything we've been doing? I'm not sure we do. . . . We need to streamline."

The council intends to begin that streamlining this morning when it picks up a list of charter changes proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker and others. The council will add suggestions of its own to the list and turn them over to a 15-member citizens commission.

The commission as held six public hearings since March and has another scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday in the county office building. It plans to spend the rest of the summer reviewing the charter, listening to suggestions for change and preparing recommendations for the five-member County Council to vote on in November. Any recommendations that receive at least four votes will be put on the 1996 ballot.

Many of the proposals -- so-called housekeeping amendments -- may seem trivial. But they often deal with substantive issues: how the county enacts its laws, a candidate's fitness for office and drawing of political boundaries.

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of West Columbia, for example, wants a small change to allow the council more time to enact legislation. The current 30-day review period "is probably too short" for consideration of "particularly controversial" legislation, she said.

Mr. Ecker has a plethora of recommendations, including one that would require Board of Appeals members to resign if they run for public office. Two members ran for County Council in the fall and lost.

Mr. Ecker also wants the charter to spell out conditions under which elected officials can be removed from office. And he wants to make the charter's conflict-of-interest provisions more specific and to include in the charter a way to oust elected officials who violate those provisions.

But it is Mr. Ecker's proposal for changing the council's decennial redistricting process that is most likely to make it to the ballot next year.

The executive wants to take the process out of the hands of the County Council and turn it over to a citizens commission. The fiercely partisan redistricting after the 1990 census ended up in court.

Mr. Ecker seeks to put an end to that kind of political wrangling by giving the next redistricting to a commission bereft of elected officials. And he appears to have bipartisan support. His proposal is based on a concept he and Democrat Paul R. Farragut worked out when Mr. Farragut was chairman of the council.

Under that concept, the executive and the council still would have a limited role in the redistricting process. The council could reject the commission's lines and draw up its own plan. The executive then could veto the council plan. If the council did not override that veto, the commission's redistricting plan would become law.

Although the charter-review commission will spend the summer refining the proposals, recommendations for changes will be considered until the council decides what changes to list on the ballot. That decision is expected early next year.

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