Carroll voters reject change Charter government, expanded commission lose in special election; County's status remains quo; Issue pitted old-timers against newcomers in struggle for power


Carroll County chose tradition yesterday, voting nearly 2-to-1 in a special election to continue its current form of government, which has been in place since before the Civil War, instead of creating a system like that of other metropolitan counties in the region.

Charter, which would have created a county executive and five-member County Council, failed, 11,107 to 7,227.

It was the fourth time in three decades that Carroll residents have voted against such a proposal, and charter opponents say that the issue is likely dead for at least a decade.

A referendum to expand the County Commission from three to five members also failed to win voter approval, 10,515 to 6,535.

Two-term commissioner Donald I. Dell said, "I'm happy about it. It points out that the citizens are still Carroll countians and have good understanding of conservative views of what's good for Carroll County.

"I'm not happy about the expense, since I'm responsible for the revenue that we've thrown away on something like this."

Nearly 24.5 percent of the 75,113 registered voters went to the polls. More than 1,000 cast absentee ballots, which will not be tallied until tomorrow.

Many viewed the election as a battle between newcomers and old-timers for not only political control, but also for a greater role in the changing lifestyle of the once-rural county.

Carroll's population has doubled to about 150,000 in the past 20 years, and shopping centers and housing developments have replaced much of the farmland.

The three-commissioner form of government "is best because it's cost effective," said Patricia Supik of South Carroll as she voted yesterday. "It is not the form that needs to be changed, but the quality of people."

The special election ends a two-year effort to scrap the three part-time commissioners and install a full-time executive to run the county.

"You need a chief executive officer to run a $181 million business," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman.

The mayors of the eight municipalities revived the charter issue, and several of them led the petition drive and other efforts to bring it to voters. New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr. and Hampstead Mayor Christopher M. Nevin both served on the nine-member charter-writing board and drafted the document.

"Charter had every political strategy going for it: special election, strong support from press and appealing issues written into it," state Del. Joseph M. Getty, an opponent of charter, said last night. "This loss means it won't be back for at least a decade."

"I guess people are not ready for a change," Gullo said. "Many feel strongly that Carroll County should stay the way it is, and this was their way of telling us.

"But the process was good. Those in elected office should see there is dissatisfaction with this form of government. This is their wake-up call to alleviate that dissatisfaction."

For those who love the mere sport of politics, yesterday's election was more than just a referendum on whether to change the county's form of government. It was the first Saturday election in the county's history and perhaps the first in Maryland in more than 100 years.

Turnout was small compared with past elections, but it was more than many expected -- especially since it was a single-issue ballot about which few voters had expressed real passion.

At many polling places, people were waiting in line at 7 a.m.

"Saturday has been good," said Kathy Lawson, a chief judge at precinct 14-3 at South Carroll High School. "It's been nice and steady since 7 a.m. It's done real well."

But by midafternoon, the number of voters had begun to dwindle.

Westminster resident Brenda Selby criticized charter supporters who pushed for a special election that cost taxpayers roughly $105,000.

"This is costing us more today, and I think only the pro-charter people know about it," she said.

The election was fought on two main fronts.

Opponents said a county executive and County Council would swell the cost of government. Proponents said the charter proposal would give residents more voice in the day-to-day decisions of government.

"I know what charter costs and what little you get for your tax money," said Ray Sherman, a Taneytown resident who said he moved there 14 years ago to get away from charter government in Baltimore County.

"These yuppies come here and want to make Carroll County like where they came from," he said.

"Our system is not perfect, but it is cheaper. We have rejected charter three times. You would think people would get the idea by now."

The 1996 push for charter came from the county's mayors, who were unable to hear a unified voice coming out of the county seat in Westminster, and from citizen activists, who felt the county's elected officials were listening more to builders and developers than to residents.

When the commissioners refused to appoint a charter-writing panel, the mayors and the activists went on a petition drive and gathered enough signatures to force them to do it.

Even then, things were not smooth. Two of the commissioners appointed representatives to the panel who generally opposed charter government.

To the chagrin of Commissioner Richard T. Yates, one of his appointees supported the charter proposal, helping it pass 5-4 and putting it on yesterday's ballot.

The ballot itself was a struggle.

Most members of the General Assembly delegation didn't want charter and were miffed with the commissioners, so they put an initiative of their own on the ballot that would have expanded the Board of Commissioners from three to five.

The commissioners also wanted to tinker with the ballot. They wanted to include a third option that would have allowed voting for three commissioners, with a notation saying that's what the county has now.

When that didn't happen, they published advertisements telling people who wanted to keep things as they are to vote against charter and against expanding the board to five commissioners.

The date of the special election was originally set for June 9, but it had to be changed to yesterday because of state and federal election deadlines.

With the major maneuvering done, the commissioners and the General Assembly delegation abandoned the fray to the few really passionate people on both sides.

As the struggle evolved, it became a fight between those who have power -- the commissioners and the delegation -- and those who would supplant that power with an executive and County Council.

In general, the battle lines were drawn between those whose roots go back generations -- to before the Revolutionary War in some instances -- and those "newcomers" who have moved to the county in the past 30 years or so.

Change was necessary, the newcomers said, because Carroll had grown beyond the point where a few old friends can get together and make decisions on the county's behalf.

Carroll has gone from a predominantly rural-agricultural to a suburban-rural lifestyle in the past 20 years and has seen its population grow by 49 percent.

But longtime residents such as state Sen. Larry E. Haines, a charter opponent whose family goes back seven generations, said the county had not changed enough to do away with the old ways. Carroll would need to grow by at least another 40,000 people before the issue could be raised appropriately, he said.

Dell, a farmer whose great-grandchildren are ninth-generation Carroll countians, was not sure the county would need to change even then.

Carroll "is a great place to live and raise a family, and the three commissioners have kept this county going," he said. "The commissioners are running things as efficiently as any DTC government could."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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