Council asks charter review panel to consider 18 changes


The Howard County Council asked a citizens commission reviewing the county charter yesterday to consider 18 changes, including ones that would allow the council to meet only nine months of the year and raise the number of voter signatures required to put charter amendments on ballots.

Nine of the requests sent by the council yesterday to the county's 15-member Charter Review Commission were new. The other requests were included among three dozen suggestions from residents and County Executive Charles I. Ecker already submitted to the commission.

After a long study and a council vote, some of the proposed charter changes could come before voters on a county ballot in 1996.

Councilman Darrel Drown of Ellicott City wants the commission to look at the possibility of adding July and December to August as months in which the council does not meet except for emergencies. The charter was amended a few years back to allow the council to skip August meetings.

Mr. Drown has contended that it is virtually impossible for the county to conduct business in December because of the Christmas holiday or in July and August because of vacations. Some residents have accused the county of saving controversial legislation for the summer months and December, when few residents attend council meetings.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia wants the requirements for getting voter-initiated charter changes onto the ballot altered to reflect the county's growth in voter registration.

The charter requires signatures of 20 percent of registered voters -- but no more than 10,000 -- on a petition to put a charter amendment proposal onto the ballot in a general election. Mr. Gray wants do away with the 10,000-signature provision. It was added in 1968, when the county had about a third as many registered voters as it does now, he said.

The writers of the charter intended that its revision should be "an important, difficult act," Mr. Gray said. "In 1968, 10,000 registered voters was substantial." Today, it is less than 10 percent of the voters, he said.

Similarly, Mr. Gray wants to delete a portion of the charter provision that would prevent a law passed by the council from taking effect until voters decide whether to approve it. Putting a law onto the ballot now requires a petition signed by 5 percent but no more than 5,000 registered voters. Mr. Gray wants only the 5 percent requirement, which would raise the number of required signatures to 5,500 registered voters.

Mr. Gray's proposal to raise to 20 percent -- or about 20,000 -- the number of registered voters needed to put a charter amendment onto the ballot was criticized by Mr. Drown.

Mr. Drown led a successful signature drive that enabled county voters in 1992 to approve a three-term limit for council members. He said collecting the required 10,000 signatures then was "a Herculean task" and added, "The thought that the number could go up does not appeal to me."

Offering another proposal, Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung of West Columbia said she wants more time to consider "important, complicated, and controversial legislation."

Although the council can extend the life of a bill 30 days by postponing action on it in a parliamentary process know as tabling, "it is not a full, open legislative process, because everybody just forgets about it," she said.

"It's called dying with dignity, Mary," joked Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, who is opposed to lengthening the process. "I have the opposite view. Whenever you draw something out, people lose interest."

Mr. Feaga, of West Friendship, said the council actions taken yesterday morning were not requirements but merely requests that the commission study an issue without prejudice.

Among the requests for study by the charter-review commission were proposals:

* To raise the fine for ignoring council subpoenas from $100 to $1,000.

* To give council members individual expense accounts and set limits on those accounts. The charter does not set limits on council expenses other than to say they must be "reasonable and necessary."

* To determine whether the county is allowed to establish an affordable-housing trust fund.

* To determine whether independents with no party affiliation are permitted to serve on the county's five-member Board of Appeals.

The charter-review commission will study the requests for change and clarification over the summer and will make preliminary recommendations. It plans to hold hearings on those recommendations in the fall and report its findings to the council.

The council then will decide which proposals to put on the ballot in the 1996 election. It takes a minimum of four votes from the five-member council to put a proposed change on the ballot.

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