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May 9, 2007

Safe Political Rhetoric

Katie Nash

Our Frederick County commissioners cite several reasons for refusing to appoint a charter writing board. Although all are inherently flawed in logic, one bizarre, albeit prominent, argument is that there should be a "groundswell" from charter advocates to convince the commissioners that this form of government is right for the county.

It appears that the commissioners are abdicating their duties in favor of being forced to appoint a charter writing board by petition. Although not explicitly stated, one can suppose that an appropriate "groundswell" might mean successful completion of this effort.

Therein lies the paradox, however. These officials are elected and shouldn't require a petition drive to incite them to act on their conscience. They unanimously voted to implement a recordation tax to further capital improvement projects - no petition drive needed there. Is it not political tyranny to arbitrarily decide the level of groundswell and what constitutes it, as well as what type of citizens must define the movement?

These demands for "groundswell" for charter government are enough to confuse even the most engaged citizen. Not wanting to further dilute the issue of which government is best to address the problems this county faces, a clear definition of what a "groundswell" constitutes is desperately needed.

If the Board of County Commissioners wants to play safe politics with the future of this county, perhaps citizens should attempt to define what it is exactly the board will agree to.

Merriam-Webster clearly defines groundswell as "a rapid spontaneous growth." (Uh-oh - what is about those 'G' words?) Charter government was conceptualized in the early 20th century and over the last 80-plus years, eight Maryland counties have ratified a charter to define their form of local government (Washington County is currently drafting a charter).

This may explain the lack of spontaneity; Home Rule has been around for quite awhile and this isn't the first time it has come up in Frederick County - just the first time this has come up before this Board of County Commissioners. Better to call for a "groundswell" of citizens who will clamor in Winchester Hall, that way they can claim to serve the public while preserving the status quo for their next election in 2010.

It shouldn't be surprising that there isn't a large percentage of voters who are suddenly interested in charter government. These commissioners owe their election to a low 25% turnout rate among registered voters in the 2006 Primary Election, and a 58% turnout rate in the 2006 General Election. A petition drive, as a few of the five elected members have called for, requires 2% of the registered voters in the county. The question, therefore, isn't a matter of feasibility, but rather of principles of good government.

The implication is that the citizens of Frederick County have not met their burden of proof in establishing that they want charter government.

An important clarification is that supporters are simply asking the commissioners to appoint a charter writing board, which will conduct public hearings and issue public notices, informing the public in a classic democratic way.

Such action does not decide acceptance of the document and change the form of government, but rather it opens the dialogue. Eventually, the question is placed on the ballot.

High school civics instructs that voting is the form of expression the public uses to voice their opinions regarding government matters. Citizens voting, not county commissioners determining the appropriate level of "groundswell," will decide the outcome for this county.

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