Carroll County residents may move one step closer this week to deciding whether they want more control over the laws affecting them.
After numerous meetings and a pair of public hearings on adopting "code home rule," the county commissioners are moving toward placing the issue on the November ballot.
The three commissioners - who frequently clash with Carroll's legislative delegation over taxes and growth - said they would likely vote on the measure Thursday. They have until Aug. 21 to decide whether to support a code home rule referendum.
"Even if it does go on the ballot, the learning process doesn't stop," Commissioner Perry L. Jones Jr. said at a hearing in Westminster last week. "If it's put on the ballot, we'll let the people decide. And if it doesn't go, it doesn't go."
A majority of the residents who attended the two public hearings voiced support for localized control over their laws, rather than needing approval of the General Assembly. But the issue remains a divisive one that's likely to dominate local campaigns, along with the question of how to manage growth.
If approved by voters, code home rule would grant the Board of Commissioners more authority to enact local laws and issue bonds without the approval of lawmakers in Annapolis.
"It's a natural progression," said Tony Roman, an adjunct political science professor at Carroll Community College, who spoke at the Westminster hearing. "People are going to wake up the next day with nothing changed as far as the three commissioners go. The only problem is people in power don't want to lose power."
Home rule has been debated before, but calls for it grew this year, after Carroll's legislative delegation thwarted a bid largely by South Carroll residents to expand the number of county commissioners and have them elected to represent districts.
Unhappy over the pace of growth, South Carroll residents pushed for the change to give the most populous and fastest growing area of the county a stronger voice in government decisions. Their votes helped pass a referendum in 2004 calling for commissioners' election by district.
But the electoral reform bogged down after Carroll's delegates and senators refused to go along with the district map pushed by the commissioners and mayors of the county's eight municipalities. With Carroll's politicians deadlocked over the map, the legislature adjourned in April without passing anything.
With the commissioner overhaul on hold for now, advocates of government reform say that allows them to focus on home rule.
"We don't have the big issues, we don't even have our own districts," said Eldersburg resident Ross A. Dangel, a spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens' Council. "The biggest issue is code home rule. It's kind of a no-brainer."
But support for code home rule is far from unanimous among the fall's commissioner candidates. At a candidates forum Thursday in Sykesville, only the three current commissioners and a Democratic candidate, Vincent F. DiPietro, suggested that they favored such a referendum on the 2006 ballot.
Other candidates, such as C. Eric Bouchat and Dave Greenwalt, both Republicans from South Carroll, would rather hold out for the full local control counties have with charter government.
Another candidate, Michael D. Zimmer, a Republican, dismissed the code- home-rule movement as an election-year ploy. He pledged to work directly with the Annapolis delegation.
"It's just a smokescreen to cover up [the commissioners'] liberal and very poor record governing," said Zimmer, who is critical of the incumbents' decisions to increase government spending and curtail growth. "They want to confuse people."
Candidates at hearing
Several candidates attended last week's public hearing on the proposed home-rule referendum, including Senate candidate Michelle Jefferson (District 5), House of Delegates candidates Haven Shoemaker Jr. and Frank Rammes (both District 5A) and commissioner candidates Douglas Myers and Mary Kowalski. At least some thought the most pressing government reform was district representation, not home rule.
"We need districts first now," said Myers, the county's former public works director. "There's too much confusion this time, and code home rule would only add to the confusion."
Advocates describe code home rule as a happy medium between charters - which govern Baltimore, Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel counties - and Carroll's traditional commissioner format.
Code home rule would allow the commissioners to increase the board from three to five members, but that wouldn't take effect until the 2010 election, County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender said at the hearing.
Less clear is whether commissioners, under code home rule, could draw district boundaries.
"Arguably, yes, but it's never been done before," said Millender, who would have to clear the matter with the attorney general. "But the broad code powers seem to suggest the ability to establish districts as well."
Carroll voters rejected code home rule in 1968 and in 1984. Efforts to bring charter government to the county also failed twice at the polls in the 1990s.
Jones suggested that voters were confused in those previous votes because there were so many questions on the ballot, including conversion to code home rule, electing commissioners by district and increasing their number.
"The issue here is whether we want to preserve just commissioners or go to code home rule," Jones said after the hearing. "It's as simple as that."
Corynne Courpas, a Westminster resident for 30 years and backer of the 1998 charter effort, said it's time to bring more local control to the county.
"We've been discussing this for at least 20 years, so I just don't understand the comments that it's been rushed through," she said.
Maryland has three forms of county government with varying degrees of autonomy from the General Assembly.
The General Assembly has full power to legislate for a county. The General Assembly determines the number of commissioners. No bonding authority. The General Assembly can pass tax caps.
Code Home Rule
Commissioners can enact, amend or repeal many local laws. Commissioners can determine the number of board members and method of their election. Some authority to issue bonds for capital projects (such as schools). The General Assembly can enact tax caps.
A county council has broad legislative powers. The county charter determines government structure. Many bond issues go to public referendum; debt may not exceed 15 percent of the county's assessable base. The county can establish tax caps.
[Source: Carroll County Attorney Kimberly A. Millender]