Commissioners of St. Mary’s County

Leonardtown, MD — The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County have voted 4-1 to put the issue of Code Home Rule for the county on the November general election ballot. The decision at their June 21 meeting was 4-1, with Commissioner Mike Hewitt [R – 2nd District] voting against the motion.

In Maryland there are three forms of county government: Commissioner, Code Home Rule and Charter. St. Mary’s County has been a Commissioner form of government for its entire existence. Some of the larger counties operate under charter, with a county executive and county council. Others like Charles have Code Home Rule, in which the commissioners sit regularly as a legislative body to enact laws. Voters in St. Mary’s have rejected Charter on two occasions.

County Attorney George Sparling told the commissioners that the only difference would be that the same elected commissioners would sit occasionally as a legislative body. He said no additional staff would be needed in his department and anywhere else in county government. “Code Home Rule is a financially neutral concept,” he said.

Sparling said that Code Home Rule offered efficiencies, responsiveness of government, transparency and increased citizen participation. Currently local bills have to be sent to Annapolis to be introduced by the local delegation and then heard by legislators from around the state. “The people of Baltimore City don’t care about you. They don’t,” said Commissioner Tom Jarboe [R – 1st District].

The commissioners were required to hold two public hearings but instead held eight over the past year in every part of the county. The hearings generally were not well attended with comments falling on both sides of the issue. That lack of public interest was one of the reasons that led Hewitt to vote against putting the issue on the ballot.

The main argument made against Code Home Rule at the public meetings was the checks and balances that the current Commissioner form of government affords. Former delegate Ernie Bell noted at one of the public hearings that the legislature killed the unpopular move of the courthouse in Leonardtown after it was supported by the majority of the then county commissioners.

The legislator instrumental in killing the courthouse move was former senator Roy Dyson. He told a June 17 meeting of the National Association of Active and Retired Federal Employees (NAFRE) that he intended to vote for Code Home Rule. He said two of the county’s four legislators live in Calvert and one just recently moved to St. Mary’s.

Hewitt argued that Charter was not an issue in the commissioner election and if there is interest in it then it can wait to be vetted during the next commissioner election.

But Jarboe said he was willing to stand on the issue now. He noted that the county submitted 18 pieces of proposed legislation during the past session but only six of them were introduced among the more than 2,000 bills. “We can handle a lot of those locally because it only affects St. Mary’s County,” he said.

Commissioner John O’Connor [R – 3rd District] said he has heard a lot of support for Charter in spite of the poor turnout at the public meetings. And he observed that the St. Mary’s County Chamber of Commerce, which represents many local businesses, has come out in support of the change in government.

“For me it has to do with the peoples’ voice. In Annapolis they don’t have a voice,” O’Connor said.

Commissioner Todd Morgan [R – 4th District] said he was neutral on Code Home Rule. “I will let the people decide the issue,” he said in explaining his vote. Morgan did urge Sparling to draft plain language to put on the ballot so people understood what they were voting for.

Commissioner President Randy Guy [R] said there was very little that the commissioners couldn’t handle locally and emphasized Sparling’s comments about changes in government size from Commissioner to Code Home Rule. “We are not changing anything,” Guy said.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com