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Carroll faces election-year void


Everyone had served as president five or six times - or was it 65 times? - before they said, "Enough."

When no one else would answer the last call to take over for the six or seven stalwarts, the League of Women Voters of Carroll County voted to disband in June, after 37 years.

There were no opposing votes, said Rosemary Hanger, who served as president "many times," because that would have meant "you have to take it over."

"That was about what it came down to," agreed Janet W. Neslen, also a former president and a longtime activist.

With the demise of the league, no one is sure whether another organization will fill the role of producing the league's local voters guides, of scheduling candidates forums, launching registration drives and assisting with absentee balloting at nursing homes.

It is not an immediate concern because there are no local races in the primary election next week. Carroll County voters will be deciding on presidential candidates, a U.S. Senate race and the 6th District congressional seat March 2.

"So many people call in here and want to know where the voters guide is and when it will be printed," said Patricia K. Matsko, director of the Carroll County Board of Elections. "I think the public is going to miss that - especially on the local front."

"It seems we haven't been missed enough - yet," said Hanger.

The national League of Women Voters was established in 1920, six months before women won the right to vote. With a membership that is open to men and women, the league is nonprofit and nonpartisan - but not tax-deductible because it takes stands on issues, according to its Web site.

Naomi Benzil, a founding member and former president of the Carroll chapter, said the league became active in the county in the late 1960s and that many of the members had been a presence in local elections until last year.

"Now we are in our 60s and 70s," she said.

The problem was finding people who could commit their time, former league members said. Although people joined, few would make leadership commitments.

"I knew we were in trouble five years ago when I had to keep going back on the board," said Hanger, 72, of Westminster. "You're not strong when the same person has to go on being president. It happened as with so many organizations: trouble getting leadership," she said.

It is not clear whether the state or national groups will provide a voters guide for the national races, Hanger said.

Basic information is available on the League of Women Voters of Maryland Web site, including information about voter registration, positions on issues, and how to contact elected representatives.

The state group's Web site lumps Carroll with Caroline, Cecil, Charles, Harford and Dorchester counties as at-large membership areas.

"I'm very distraught about the fact that the league did disband locally, but we're all still members of the state and national organization," said Benzil, 66, a retired social studies teacher.

The Anne Arundel chapter disbanded 2 1/2 years ago - and has re-formed, said Carol Sures, a member there who also is on the Maryland league board.

"It was really that we didn't have people who wanted to take leadership roles - we had 79 members - and a lot of the women have put in their time. Some were in their late 80s," Sures said. "They've all done it 65 times."

It took just a few activists - moving into Anne Arundel from other states and shocked to find no league chapter in the county of the state capital - to remedy that situation.

A new chapter was formed recently in Queen Anne's County in response to development issues on Kent Island, Sures said.

"I think you could say that the League of Women Voters is alive and well," said state President Judy Morenoff of Rockville, a member for more than 30 years of the Montgomery County chapter, one of the oldest in the nation.

"I think, nationwide, it is not a particularly unusual phenomenon," she said of the Carroll chapter's folding. "I think the volunteer pool has changed. I think the heart of the volunteer pool years ago was young mothers with hours for community service."

Now they go to work, Morenoff said, while retired people with skills and knowledge want to travel and are "less willing to take on a year-round job."

Many hope Carroll will bounce back, Hanger said. The chapter had almost 70 members when it disbanded, although, for its last two years, the Carroll league had only an acting president.

"We actually had a 9 percent increase in membership when we folded - we just couldn't get anyone to take leadership," said Jenny Teeter, 43, who served as the acting president. She commutes an hour to Frederick, where she works full time as a hospital administrator. Teeter also wants to get involved in partisan politics, which is prohibited for leaders of the league.

Neslen, 79, a league member since 1954, said people are willing to join, "but they don't have the time or inclination for the leadership roles." Neslen, who came to Carroll in 1981, is a retired deputy of the Carroll County Health Department and former county health officer.

The leadership problem also led to the demise of the 10-year- old Women's Fair.

Cherie Jenkins said she issued a warning last year after serving for the second time as chairwoman of the Carroll County Women's Fair. A success since its inception, the annual fair's speakers, workshops and exhibits drew more than 1,000 people.

But, Jenkins said no one would take the reins for a 2004 event.

"People who had been helping just got burned out," she said. "I would come to the meetings and beg for help. We toughed it out," she said, but told the volunteers last year, "Either somebody steps up or this thing is done."

Jenkins said the same situation applied with the league as a whole.

"You had people running it who were in their 80s. They thought they got a young person, with me in my 40s," she said.

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