Home rule taken for granted at age 40 Baltimore Co. growth set stage for reforms


Imagine Towson in 1956, before any big buildings went up -- a sleepy town in a county awakening to the explosive pressures of post-war suburbanization.

In this pre-Beltway world, new houses and shopping centers were popping up like spring daisies -- Baltimore County's population jumped 190,000 in just eight years after 1950.

But near-absolute power over 610 square miles of valuable land rested with three county commissioners and the county's one state senator and six delegates. Local laws had to be approved by the state legislature, which then met every two years.

"It was a pretty closed operation," recalls former county schools Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel, among those who supported a change to modern "home rule" government -- a system that took effect 40 years ago this week.

That system brought scores of changes and set the stage for reforms now taken for granted. Back then, there were no open meeting or ethics laws, and professional civil servants were as rare as open meetings. The commissioners made policy and ran the county.

The system of a county executive, county council and charter gave locally elected leaders the power to enact laws and to act as a check on each other's power, while adding a merit-based personnel system to professionalize the work force.

Instead of three men deciding in a closed room how to spend county money, the seven-member council held open meetings, giving the public more access to what was being done and more officials to appeal to. "You'd have seven chances" to make a case for maintaining the school budget, Dubel says. referring to the council.

The reformed government structure also headed off a political insurrection, fueled partly by Dundalk's booming growth and by newspaper disclosures of zoning and purchasing scandals.

"What we did has stood the test of time," says John A. Donaho, 79, a former Maryland insurance commissioner who 40 years ago was a consultant to the county's charter board. He and others who helped create the new form of government will be honored by the County Council tomorrow night.

Things were much different then. An occasional haircut was given in county courthouse hallways by an official with a sideline. And companies hungry for county contracts spread gifts of all descriptions among poorly paid, politically connected workers.

'Incapable of coping'

Arthur W. Machen Jr., who helped write the charter, says the commissioner form of government was equally old-fashioned.

"It was incapable of coping with the problems of a large population," the semiretired lawyer says. Charter government "was an idea whose time had come."

Baltimore County then had 350,000 residents, half the current total, but was growing fast. From 1948 to 1958, the county added 71 schools or major expansions, 500 miles of sewer lines and 3,000 miles of roads built or resurfaced, according to Neal A. Brooks and Eric G. Rockel's book, "A History of Baltimore County."

Political pressures

As a result of growth, political pressures intensified.

In the early 1950s, Dundalk was threatening to incorporate and become an independent town amid complaints it was being ignored in Towson. Meanwhile, the League of Women Voters rose to prominence by defeating at referendum a state-approved local law that gave the county commissioners title to all school buildings and power over school construction.

As the campaign for charter government moved toward a November 1956 vote, newspaper articles exposed links between campaign contributions and zoning changes granted to developers. Other articles described informal, no-bid purchasing policies under which the county paid more for materials than Baltimore did.

Challenged officials

County residents were aroused. And as former state Del. Bert Booth, then a young mother of two and a League of Women Voters member, recalls, even political bosses such as "Iron Mike" Birmingham, a Dundalk coal and lumber dealer who dominated the commissioners, didn't dare openly oppose change.

League members -- energetic, determined and often well-educated -- challenged the elected officials, who were thought "next to God," Booth says. "We always wore hats and white gloves in public, but we were like steel magnolias."

In the end, Machen and Donaho say, the political tact and skill of the five-member charter board, led by Chairman Edward H. Burke and Isabel W. Burkhardt of the league, defused even quiet resistance.

Birmingham was offered the chance to be the first county executive -- to lead a smooth transition -- and accepted.

But the Nov. 4, 1956, election that approved the charter by a 27,000-vote margin also brought four Republicans to the County Council -- giving them control, instead of the Birmingham machine.

'More effective'

Today, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger looks back and says the changes, including a later modification to elect council members by district, helped tremendously.

Charged with managing a county with a $1.3 billion budget and nearly 20,000 employees, he says the old system couldn't have continued for long.

"I think it's working," he says about charter government. "We had to become more effective. We had to provide services and become more professional."

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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