Council expansion discussed at charter review hearings

The Howard County Charter Review Commission is considering adding two more seats to the five-member County Council and debating whether they should be county-wide seats or two additional district seats.

But not everyone is applauding the possible expansion.


"I say absolutely not because that would cost $420,000 per each term," Scaggsville resident Stuart Kohn said.

Kohn was one of eight people who testified at two public hearings the commission held recently, suggesting changes to the document that outlines the rights of the legislative, executive and judicial branches of county government.


The first hearing was held Wednesday, Sept. 14 at the North Laurel Community Center. The second was held Tuesday, Sept. 20 at the George Howard Building, in Ellicott City.

The commission will hold one more hearing Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. in the Gary Arthur Community Center at Glenwood, in Cooksville.

The commission is charged with identifying sections of the charter that need to be revised and recommending revisions to the council by May 1, 2012. Any changes the council votes to adopt will have to be affirmed by voters in the next election.

Highland resident John Taylor, who spoke at both recent hearings, supported adding more seats to the council. In fact, the job should be full-time, he said.

"If you overload the representatives and you require them to have full-time careers in addition to being your representative, I don't think that's beneficial," he said.

Taylor noted that 20 years ago council members used to represent roughly 25,000 people, about half of what the five council members each represent now. Census data, he said, is used to reapportion Congressional seats.

"I think something analogous needs to happen at the county level," Taylor said.

'Insular' view decried


Former council member Angela Beltram, of Ellicott City, agreed that two added seats are needed and said they should be at-large seats, so those elected have a county-wide understanding of issues, not an "insular" view.

"You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube," she said. "We have districts and we have to live with it, but I believe in recent years there's a problem with governing by district in Howard County."

But that could be problematic, several commission members suggested, since most voters in Howard County live in Columbia. The two at-large members would likely come from Columbia, and since Columbia "will never vote Republican," commission member Charles Feaga, a Republican, said, it would create an even larger voting bloc of Democrats.

Beltram stood by her suggestion.

"Certain members of the council don't know other parts of the county," she said. "I'm not trying to make the county government bigger, I'm just trying to make it more responsive. Wherever they come from is OK with me, it's just that they have to campaign outside of their neighborhood."

Beltram also suggested to the commission that the council should no longer sit as the zoning board.


"I have only one council person or zoning board person … who's accountable to me," she said. "Ever since we've had districts, zoning is a problem."

Beltram said Howard County is the only charter county in which the original hearing entity for rezoning cases is the County Council. She said a land-use attorney who does not practice law in the county should be used to hear rezoning cases.

The commission is also considering changing the number of signatures needed to take an issue to voter referendum. The charter says a referendum petition is sufficient if signed by 5 percent of the county's registered voters, but in any case no fewer than 1,500 or more than 5,000 signatures will be required. The commission is mulling wording that would require only 5 percent of the votes cast for governor in the most recent election.

Kohn suggested the requirement be five percent of people who cast votes for county executive in the most recent election. Columbia resident Ken Stevens said 5 percent of registered voters is adequate, as long as the references to not less than 1,500 and no more than 5,000 are deleted.