Charter changes to face voters 13 proposals included on ballot tomorrow provide few details; Most are not controversial; Others -- on districts, ethics and purchasing -- have drawn debate; CAMPAIGN 1996

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first part of the ballots before Howard County voters tomorrow should be fairly self-explanatory. Voters will choose a president, a congressman, a local school board member and two local Circuit judges. Then there's the second part of the ballot.

What, voters may ask, is all that stuff?

That stuff is 13 proposed revisions to the Howard County Charter -- its constitution. Officials review the charter every eight years.

For the most part, the proposed changes are bureaucratic housecleaning -- such as making all language in the charter gender-neutral. But several of the proposals are generating public debate. They are: Does Howard County need a commission to revise its voting districts every decade? If so, should the Republican and Democratic parties pick the members -- thereby possibly bypassing independent voices? And should citizens have a chance to overrule the voting district commission? The proposal on the ballot would allow the political parties to pick the members and would deny citizens the chance to overrule the commission's decisions.

What kind of gifts should Howard's elected officials be permitted to accept from government contractors? Should officials be barred from accepting all gifts -- as is the case now -- or should they just be barred from accepting gifts "of more than nominal" value?

Should the county be allowed to establish minor penalties for minor ethics violations? Currently, the only conflict-of-interest penalty is expulsion from office.

Should the county be allowed to borrow millions of dollars for short-term capital expenditures, such as buying computer systems?

Inside voting booths, voters will not find the proposals fully described on the ballots, according to sample ballots supplied by the Howard County Board of Supervisors of Elections. If they did, the ballots might resemble several pages of a telephone book.

Instead, the proposal on the voting districts commission -- which would draw voting districts for County Council members -- for example, is compressed into a 105-word paragraph, which does not directly mention one of its key changes: that the major parties would pick commission members.

Tom Flynn, a member of a citizens group that has studied the charter changes for the past year, said the party picks could create a commission bereft of political independence.

"By defining the members of the commission on political grounds, you really cut out a lot of qualified people," Flynn said.

But the redistricting commission proposal overall has its good points, Flynn said. Currently, the five-member County Council redistricts itself. And as it showed in 1991, that can be messy.

At the time, the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans, three to two. Not surprisingly, the three Democrats drew up political maps to their benefit and passed the changes as a bill.

Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker then vetoed the plan. The three Democrats, knowing they did not have the votes to override the veto, simply rewrote the plan in the form of a resolution -- knowing that resolutions can't be vetoed.

Lawyers got into the fray. The dispute ended up in court. New districts weren't drawn up finally until 1993.

Nevertheless, a community activist who has studied the charter said the commission proposal should be defeated. John W. Taylor of Highland is troubled by a provision exempting the commission's recommendations from voter review.

"There is an ominous trend lately in some quarters to attempt to eliminate or restrict the right of 'we the people' to participate in major decisions that affect us all," Taylor said.

But Flynn and others say redistricting takes so long that it shouldn't be easily scrapped.

As for the proposal relating to the gifts public officials are allowed to receive -- tomorrow's ballot also does not provide full details.

Here is the ballot's description of the proposed change:

"To provide that no officer or employee of the County shall accept any service or thing of more than nominal value, directly ++ or indirectly, from any person, firm, or corporation having dealings with the County."

The ballot's description leaves the impression that the entire section is new. In fact, the only new part is the phrase "more than nominal." This is problematic, said James Holway, a framer of the original charter in 1966. The problem, he says, is the interpretation of "nominal." Is it a cup of coffee? A pair of opera tickets? A set of golf clubs?

"Nominal has no legal meaning," said Holway, who recommends voting against Question J. "For all practical purposes, these guys have put a word in there that doesn't mean anything. You can't challenge it because it doesn't mean anything."

But council members said "nominal" makes sense. They are constantly offered nominal gifts.

"We're always getting pens, coffee mugs, T-shirts of the day," said Republican County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown, of Ellicott City.

"I just take it and say thank you," he said.

Even accepting a commemorative plaque, council members point out, sets them up for a complaint by a political enemy who wants to drag them before the county Ethics Commission.

Under the proposal, the commission could define nominal on a case-by-case basis. The word nominal "can be a gray word, but these are gray areas," Drown said.

But Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, said nominal is simply too gray.

Her advice to Howard officials: Don't accept anything, not even a cup of coffee.

The proposed charter changes address another part of conflict-of-interest laws. Another measure before voters would allow the county to levy minor penalties against the county's elected officials or employees for minor ethical violations.

Now, if someone violates the county conflict-of-interest laws, the only penalty is dismissal from their office or job. As a result, Councilman Dennis R. Schrader of north Laurel said, the county Ethics Commission is reluctant to cite officials for minor infractions.

"If the penalty for littering was the death penalty, judges wouldn't find anyone guilty of littering," Schrader said.

Forfeiture of office would remain an option for major violations, he said.

But Holway and Taylor said the proposal weakens county ethics standards. "A vote no [on the proposal] would retain an important penalty for unscrupulous officials," Taylor said.

Finally, in the matter of borrowing money for short-term capital projects, Holway warned that more debt could hurt Howard's credit rating.

Wall Street analysts have warned the county not to spend much more on yearly debt-service payments. Holway pointed to the federal government, whose borrowing for short-term expenditures "is killing the country."

But Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, said Howard enjoys triple-A bond ratings while it borrows money for short-term capital expenditures -- such as buying computer systems that are expected to last five years.

Wacks said existing county laws -- based on general guidelines laid down by the charter -- allow officials to use such modern financing methods.

The proposed charter change, Wacks said, "validates the techniques we are using."

Several months ago, the County Council discussed putting two more controversial charter changes on the ballot. Those changes would have altered the county merit system and a voter referendum procedure for zoning issues. But in the end, there were not enough votes on the council to place either measure on the ballot.

Pub Date: 11/04/96

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