Monday, October 22, 2012

2012 Election: Howard County Charter Amendments

Last year, I had the opportunity to participate as a member of the Howard County Charter Review Commission.  This was unquestionably one of the most rewarding and fulfilling civic experiences that I have had amongst all of the boards, commissions, and panels that I have found myself on over the past five years.  Serving with the likes of Ed Cochran, Charlie Feaga, Mike Davis, Sang Oh, Diane Richardson, Alice get my point.  If I may be so bold, this was an All-Star team of community members who took their job very seriously and avoided most of the partisan bickering that would otherwise be expected from a group that was partly distinguished by party affiliation.

Enough with introductions.  You, the voter, will be asked to evaluate five Charter Amendments on the 2012 Ballot and it probably is a good idea to start thinking about where you stand now.  Some are "no-brainers", while others are at the very heart of long-running controversies.  For all of these questions, it is imperative that you vote.  By Charter, we cannot allow many of these Amendments without a majority of Howard County voters weighing in at the ballot box.  While you may be tempted to skip these questions and get off to work, they are just as important, if not more so, than your Presidential chad.  So please, give them your attention and consideration.

As opposed to the State-wide questions, these Ballot questions are listed by letter.

Question A -- "Any person has the right to inspect...records in the possession of any board, commission, office or department of the County..."

For reasons uncertain, our Charter presently limits access to certain public documents to members of the press.  Drafters of the original Charter must have presumed that Howard County would be such an interesting place that Public Information officials would be overloaded with requests to inspect documents, and, hence, put a filter on who could make such requests.  Thankfully, that rush on Ms. Marmaduke in the Land Records department never materialized and we can open access to everyone.  I would encourage you to vote Yes on the question, but if your intuition or convictions point you in a different direction, so be it.

Question B - Carry over of Unexpended Appropriations

This is an accounting measure that has caused the Department of Finance a great deal of trouble.  At present, unexpended appropriations to grant funds revert to the County Treasury at the end of the fiscal year.  This complicated things in terms of fulfilling the parameters of certain grants or assuring adequate financing for long-term projects.  In most cases, the Finance Department has just gone to the Council to have them pass a measure to carry-over grant funds to the following fiscal year, but this is certainly inefficient and burdensome to use personnel time for this task.

When it comes to technical financial matters, I know the tendency is to try to see the devil in the details...and I know some of you will see fit to do so.  However, I would recommend that you vote Yes on Question B to allow this simple matter of efficiency go through.

Question C -- Referendum Petitions Require 5% of Gubernatorial Votes Cast

I told you there was some meat on these bones!  During my very first read through the Charter, I sought out the Section on referenda, circled it, and put a star next to it.  I wanted all the warning possible for when this matter would be up for discussion.

At present, in order to refer a County law to the voters, a petitioner must collect 1,500 5,000 signatures supporting the petition.  This requirement comes cloaked in a somewhat convoluted sentence ("equal to 5% of the County's registered voters, with a minimum of 1,500 signatures required and a maximum of 5,000 signatures required"), but since Howard County has passed the point where 1,500 5,000 was 5% of registered voters, the 1,500 5,000 mark sticks.  Note that under the proposed change, the new petition floor would be somewhere around 1,800 5,080 signatures, so not a dramatic change, and still too low for some.

I wrestled with this one, friends.  I am not a fan of this thread of populism, but I do believe that so long as we have a mechanism for referenda, it should be a meaningful one.  I voted against this measure at the Commission level and am yet again weighing the merit of this Amendment at the ballot level.  The one log I just can't get over is that we are not plagued by referendum questions in this County.  There have been three efforts in recent memory to get a County law onto the ballot for public vote, all of which failed.  In each case, the petitioners collected signatures far in excess of the 1,500 5,000 floor, yet saw upwards of 70% of those signatures invalidated.  I'm not sure we should be considering whether or not signatures will be invalidated when evaluating a charter amendment that does not speak to the evaluation of signatures, but it is hard to ignore this component of the law.

Contra - Do we need to wait for the 21st Century to blow-up our referendum process before we try to get a charter amendment, and in the meantime take predictability and certainty out of our political process?  Is this amendment so egregious as to reasonably say that it prohibits referendum?  I don't think so.

I have no recommendation on this Question, but I hope you will vote either way instead of skipping over the question entirely.  As I come to my own position on the subject, I will be sure to let you know.

UPDATE: A comment from Commission Member Mike Davis:

Question C, regarding the signature requirements for a successful referendum on a local issue is, indeed, the most "meaty" issue, one that will require further elaboration.  While I understand your concerns about Question C, there are two or three clarifications that may be helpful.First, the signature requirement effectively is 5000 right now, not 1500.  Applying the 5% proportion to the number of registered voters in the last governor's race would yield a signature requirement of about 5090, as I recall.  As a side note, this requirement would still keep Howard County among the lowest in signature requirements among those 10 or 11 jurisdictions in Maryland that even allow referendum questions at all in Maryland for local issues.Second, the validity test for signatures is that a signer must provide first name, middle initial, and last name.  In the alternative, the signer can use first initial, middle name, and last name.  Thus, "John Q. Doe" or "J. Quincy Doe" would be equally acceptable.  This requirement, though state-mandated, is based on the need for the local Board of Elections to be able to substantiate that each signer is, in fact, a registered voter.Finally, whether there have been successful county referenda in the past is not really the test.  Maybe there just haven't been issues that have caught  widespread  public attention.  However, look at what's happening at the state level this year with numerous referendum questions on the ballot.  So, with the right questions, it is clear that sufficient signatures can be obtained.

Question D -- Electronic Posting of County Notices and Advertisements

If you've been to the George Howard Building, you've see a large bulletin board containing proposed County laws and Zoning Regulations.  That is by requirement of the Charter...and otherwise useless.  In the 21st Century, the baseline should be online accessibility, with everything else being secondary.  This Amendment would bring our Charter up to date and create a legal requirement for what our County, for the most part, already complies with voluntarily.

I encourage you to vote Yes on Question D.

Question E -- Technical Corrections

The thing about a Charter is that once it is passed, typos live longer than most household pets.  Most Charter Review Commissions saw it as below them to stoop down and adjust that comma or correct that reference to the Metropolitan Commission that does not exist.  Not us.  No, friends, we took on that heavy load.  And this was more controversial than I care to admit.

I would strongly recommend, if not plead, that you vote Yes on Question E.

That's all for today.  I am in a surprisingly good mood considering the butt whupping our dear Ravens took on over the weekend.  Can't put my finger on it, but I won't complain.  Have a great Monday doing what you love!