Charter goes to vote today in Carroll Narrow win expected by foes, backers of government change; Turnout uncertain; Absentee ballots may decide outcome in first Saturday poll


The drive to create a new government in Carroll County ends today in an unprecedented Saturday election that could show whether the booming newcomer population will make itself heard in one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

Today's election ends a two-year, often emotional drive to scrap the commissioner form of government in place since before the Civil War in favor of an executive and council, the system used by all other metropolitan counties.

To some, the vote is more about the way of life in a once-rural county than it is about political science. Carroll's population has doubled in the past 20 years to nearly 150,000, and the farmland and rolling vistas that attracted many newcomers are getting eaten up by shopping centers and houses.

A total of 75,113 residents is eligible to vote. And though Carroll voters usually post high turnouts in Tuesday elections -- 71 percent in 1996 -- elections officials don't know how many will alter weekend plans to vote.

"I really don't want to make a prediction," said Patricia Matsko, director of the Board of Elections. "I have no idea."

Most say the race is too close to call. Both sides are claiming victory by a narrow margin. Many say a second ballot initiative -- ++ a proposal to expand the three-member board of commissioners to five -- will be lost in the controversy.

"Charter will carry South Carroll by as much as 55 percent," said Hoby Wolf, an Eldersburg resident opposed to the charter. "But that victory will be overwhelmed by what comes in from the rest of the county."

The race might be close, but charter will fail, said Wolf, a member of the county Board of Zoning Appeals.

The second initiative on today's ballot, the proposal to expand the Board of Commissioners to five members, will win, he said.

"There is no disclaimer on the ballot that says you can vote no on both," said Wolf. "If that was there, this would be a whole different ball game."

New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr., who helped write the charter proposal, predicted charter would win, but by as few as 100 votes.

If Gullo is right, the results would not be available until Monday, when the Elections Board tallies more than 1,000 absentee ballots.

History is not on the side of charter proponents. Carroll voters have defeated moves toward charter government three times in the past 34 years -- most recently in 1992.

But this time is different, charter supporters say.

Newcomers to Carroll are increasingly demanding a stronger voice in county government.

In Eldersburg, Mount Airy, Taneytown and other places along the county's borders, residents complain they feel disenfranchised from the political power that appears to be concentrated in Westminster.

The charter would give each of five areas in the county representation on the council, planning commission, ethics commission and zoning board -- which is why Helen Simpson, 81, a lifelong resident of Mount Airy, is voting for charter.

"I think Mount Airy will be better represented," she said.

Donna Benson, whose children attend crowded schools in Eldersburg, has chosen charter, because she said she believes it will mean stronger controls on growth.

"The commissioners have not always considered what growth is doing to our schools," Benson said. "We get more houses before we get new schools."

Rose Ann Fischer, a Sykesville resident who moved to the county seven years ago from Toms River, N.J., favors charter but fears it will not pass.

"People here don't want to get out of the 19th century," she said.

Charter opponents say their vision is forward-looking. The three-commissioner leadership has worked since 1856 and will continue to be responsive to citizens, they believe.

"The commissioners have done a pretty good job," said Rhonda Lewis, 32, of Westminster. "I understand why some people want to change, but the present system is working perfectly fine. I don't see any reason to change."

Rodney Sykes, 47, of Union Bridge agrees.

"We need to keep what they got going now," he said. Under charter government, the county will "get somebody too damn young" as county executive or county council members, he said. "They don't know a lot about what we're doing."

Two of Carroll's three commissioners are in their 70s.

The struggle between pro- and anti-charter camps has been visible throughout the county. Signs advocating both sides have sprouted in store fronts and cornfields and on car bumpers. A number of debates in community centers, town halls and on television have drawn crowds in the past month.

Still, for many residents, political matters are far removed from their daily experience.

"I don't keep up with local government," said Debbie Barnes, 48, of Mount Airy. To do so, says friend Sherry Maguire, 24, also of Mount Airy, is futile.

"These people are just going to do what they want anyway," she said.

Some residents, like Michelle Bode of Eldersburg, have seen the fliers and road signs, but say they do not understand the issues and probably will not vote.

"For a long time, I thought charter was a candidate running for office," she said.

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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