By ANJU KAUR, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - St. Mary's County may be looking for a charm this third time around.
Come Tuesday, the county five commissioners are expected to vote on whether to change the county's form of government to a charter, the third time the issue's come up in 35 years, or another form.
"Why mess up things that are working well?" said Commissioner Lawrence Jarboe, implying his vote.
Fifteen volunteers have been studying the issue as a task force since March, after commissioners determined growth in the county might require a change.
"There is increased demand for safety and welfare, infrastructure, schools, roads, snow removal, land use planning," said Patrick Murphy, chairman of the task force and former county attorney. "To wait 'til something happens and we cannot react to it is a violation of public trust."
Right now, St. Mary's and seven other counties are governed by commissioners, the form of government that all Maryland counties began with. Nine counties have changed to the charter form and six have changed to the code form.
The county task force looked at two other forms of government allowed in Maryland: charter home rule and code home rule, and recommended the charter form.
In the commissioner form of government, legislative authority resides with the General Assembly, meaning the county has to get the House of Delegates and Senate to agree on changes in the law.
But in the home-rule forms of government, the county controls all or part of its own legislation and voters have the right to put any legislation on the ballot.
Changing the government requires four of the five commissioners' approval. If the charter form is chosen, commissioners appoint charter writers and then put the document before voters, which couldn't occur before 2012, according to the task force. If the commissioners vote for a code form, which does not require writing a charter, voters could see it on the ballot in 2010.
At a public forum held at St. Mary's College of Maryland on Sept. 26, Murphy described the commissioner form of government as "an incredibly inefficient way to plan for the future."
Nine task force members, including Murphy, recommended a charter form of government with an elected executive. It would separate the powers of government much like the federal government. A council would write the laws, while an elected executive would administrate day-to-day operations.
"It's easier to deal with one person who speaks for the county," said former Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan, who also spoke at the forum. "And you can't spread the blame as much. Whatever happens, you're responsible."
The charter form would cost more because you are adding a branch of government, Duncan added. "But it's money well spent."
Three task force members recommended moving to the code form of government, in which the commissioners would gain limited legislative powers.
"Our commissioner form of government has brought St. Mary's County through the significant growth period of the 1990s that were associated with the impacts of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission decisions," they said.
According to the Census Bureau, St. Mary's County grew 13.5 percent in the 1990s, but from 2000 to 2006 it grew 14.6 percent, from 86,211 to 98,854.
That growth is what prompted Commissioner Daniel Raley to call for an investigation into changing government forms, but now he doesn't see the need.
"I don't get a sense that the case has been made," Raley said. "I agree (with Jarboe) that people are not ready for a charter (form of government)."
He may back the code form of government.
"We don't take gigantic steps," he said.
The forum, Raley said, was "sparsely attended by citizens," which he said indicated a lack of support for a change.
Commissioners Thomas Mattingly and Francis Russell also attended. Russell and Commissioner Kenneth Dement could not be reached for comment.
St. Mary's defeated charter government in 1972 and 1988. Commissioners Mattingly and Jarboe plan to defeat it a third time.
"People are not ready for an elected executive," Mattingly said. "Citizens have not felt a driving reason for change, and unless citizens send a message, we should not make a move."
Mattingly may support the code form because it has worked well for Charles County, but he would not be surprised if no change is made.
Jarboe thinks of Prince George's County when he hears of charter government: "high crime and bloated bureaucracy."
Jarboe or one of his cousins has been on the board of commissioners since 1942 and the current government has served county citizens well the entire time.
"We have the No. 1 quality of life in the Mid-Atlantic," Jarboe said. "People walk over to the mill (where he works) and talk to me all the time. You can never get that kind of audience with an executive."
That's an argument that doesn't wash with Peter Shapiro, former Prince George's County Council chairman. In the six years he served with the county, he had no shortage of citizens coming to talk to him, he said.
His advice is to consider a change before rapid population growth and new development become unmanageable.
"It's hard to imagine that (St. Mary's County) isn't going to be large enough" by 2012, when it may need a charter form of government.
If growth is not handled properly, the commissioner government will make it hard for citizens to hold any one person responsible, said Michael Cain, acting director of the college's Center for the Study of Democracy and leader of the forum.
Cain is hoping for a charter form of government.
"If they go, they should go all the way," is his recommendation to the commissioners. "Just because there is no ground-swell (of voter support) doesn't mean change won't help us."
"This is a hard question for people to wrap their heads around," he added. "(The commissioners) should allow the process to go forward so the people have to vote. This will make them think more carefully about their government."