Charter petitioners vs. Dell, Yates, divine right


IT'S A SAD commentary on the democratic process when two county commissioners, elected by a third of Carroll's registered voters, act as if they have a divine grant to rule with infallible omniscience.

Yes, we can all applaud the shoe-leather, door-knocking, populist canvass campaign of Richard T. Yates in 1994. We are sure he got an earful from some citizens about their concerns and aspirations for the county. We appreciate that Donald I. Dell was re-elected by popular vote, running on his record.

But that was not a mandate to ignore the public will, and to deny legitimate demands for democratic process, for four years. While piously posturing as "listening to the voters," these two seem to hear only the voices in their own heads.

Thus they would sanctimoniously declare that the eight elected mayors of Carroll municipalities -- representing one-fourth of the county's population -- do not express the will of the people.

That's why they denied the mayors' request last summer that the commissioners appoint a committee to draft a document for charter government -- which would still have to be voted on by citizens in a general election referendum.

That sent charter supporters to the petition route. Last month, they presented nearly 5,000 signatures, about 1,000 signers more than the 5 percent of registered voters required by state law.

Again, that was not good enough for Messrs. Yates and Dell. The petitions might be filled with phony names, non-residents, duplicate signatures. Each signer, each petition page had to be verified by the county Board of Elections office. And never mind the expense, said the two taxpayer watchdogs (contrary to their usual excuse for vetoing every public participation measure).

But if there were enough valid signatures, the commissioners would have to appoint a charter-writing panel.

So instead of turning to the people who wanted a charter and who would presumably put forth their best effort to produce a satisfactory document, Mr. Yates (with Mr. Dell's OK) insisted on further expense of taxpayer money in newspaper advertising for applicants for the charter committee.

Which might be a good idea, to get a broader group of citizens from which to choose the panel, except that Mr. Yates used this official paid communication to publicize his own peculiar, anti-charter views.

His ad calls for "general public" involvement in the charter panel "in lieu of special interest groups," a clear reference to the grassroots charter campaign, public petition drive and popularly elected town officials.

The ad further stated: "A charter proposal that does not reflect the views of the majority of the Carroll County voters will surely be defeated when subjected to referendum."

Is this a meaningless, obvious definition of an election result -- the voting majority decides a referendum? Or does it mean that everyone's views must be incorporated in an election question, assuring its approval, before it can be placed on the ballot?

That majority pre-approval certainly was not a requirement for Mr. Yates to put his name on the ballot in 1994.

Indeed, since the election totals show that a majority of Carroll's registered voters did not vote for him, or for Mr. Dell, how can they presume to speak for the majority? Were those two #F commissioners (and colleague W. Benjamin Brown) elected by a minority of "special interest groups"?

Producing a mulligan stew

Messrs. Yates and Dell also believe that the purpose of the charter draft committee is to be a debating club between opponents and supporters of charter government. It is to produce a mulligan stew of ideas, presumably reflecting all the "views of the majority," rather than a workable document for the voters' decision.

Mr. Yates wants to appoint both foes and friends of charter to the panel. Mr. Dell would appoint only opponents of charter. Together, they would work to assure that the public demand to vote on a decent charter proposal is thwarted.

Charter advocates could object to the commissioners' appointees, again submit petitions for other candidates, force another special election to decide who writes the document. More delay and expense caused by the commissioners' refusal to acknowledge the purpose of a referendum.

In most cases, a petition for a referendum defines the ballot question. The voters then vote "yes" or "no." Not so in the Carroll charter process, where anti-charter commissioners can blithely appoint saboteurs to purposely write a totally unacceptable document for predestined defeat.

There are some persuasive arguments against changing the current system, and some drawbacks to charter in general as well as to any specific draft. But these are issues for public debate, discussion and, ultimately, for voters to decide at the polls.

Charter proponents have earned the right to present their best proposal to the electorate. Public servants Dell and Yates should respect that right -- and the democratic process.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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