Council Democrats stymie the GOP Pair unify to kill three more proposed charter changes


Democrats on the Howard County Council demonstrated the power of a unified minority once again last night, knocking off three more charter change proposals dear to council Republicans.

Democrats -- the council minority since 1994 -- already had used rules governing charter changes to hinder Republican efforts to overhaul the personnel system and block a proposal that would have weakened Question B, a growth-control measure.

Last night, they added a few more Republican proposals to the casualty list, even as the council approved several others. Two of those defeated were budgeting changes. The third would have made it harder for voters to call a referendum to revoke the charter.

A commission recommended several charter changes in April. Since then, the council has whittled the list to 13 proposals that will appear on the November ballot.

For an item to get on the ballot, two-thirds of the council -- four of five members -- must approve it. That has given the council's two Democrats a rare taste of power as they have worked together to kill proposals they opposed.

The changes approved for the ballot last night include:

Establishing a redistricting commission to recommend new boundaries on County Council districts after each 10-year census. If the council deadlocks, the commission's proposal would become law.

Increasing to $1,000 from $100 the fine for "failure or refusal to obey a lawful order issued by the council in the exercise of its power to conduct investigations."

Allowing county employees or officials to accept gifts of "no more than nominal value."

Making all language in the charter gender-neutral.

Canceling December's legislative session for the council, except in election years.

Republicans first ran into trouble last night on Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown's proposal to shrink the county's "rainy-day fund," which is used to protect against unexpected budget shortfalls, from 7 percent of the budget to 5 percent. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, said the fund is too large. Cutting its size would free $6 million on a one-time basis for operations.

But C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, said the council already has the power to use money from the rainy-day fund if necessary.

When Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, spoke out against the proposal, Drown knew it was finished. "If we have a shortfall of funds," he said, "don't come crying to us."

So went the debate on a proposal by Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a West Friendship Republican, to lower the cap on county borrowing to 8 percent of the Howard's tax base.

The current cap is 12 percent, but the county typically borrows less than 5 percent of its base in any given year.

"We probably won't get in trouble for another two or three years, but I think we've borrowed as much as we should," Feaga said. But again, the Democrats killed the proposal.

The final showdown was over Drown's proposal to make it more difficult to terminate the charter. If 10,000 voters sign petitions calling for a referendum on the charter, it goes on the ballot, where a simple majority can revoke it. Drown argued that it should take 20 percent of voters -- about 21,000 signatures -- to put the entire charter on the ballot. "It still can be done," Drown said, "but it makes it very difficult to terminate the type of government that we have."

But Lorsung replied, "If the government of the county were in such bad shape that you could get 10,000 signatures, then things are in bad enough shape to go out and get the opinion of" voters.

When Gray agreed, it was clear the GOP proposal was dead.

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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