Former delegate Ernie Bell at the March 24th celebration of Maryland Day at St, Clement’s Island Potomac River Museum in Colton’s Point. Photo courtest of the Bayside History Museum.

Leonardtown, MD — Bypassing the Maryland General Assembly to enact strictly local laws is held out as the main reason why St. Mary’s County should change its form of government from commissioner to Code Home Rule. That argument was presented again at the sixth of seven public hearings on Code Home Rule March 22 at the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department (VFD).

Two former elected officials presented the flip sides of the advantages of bringing legislation back to the county. Former three-term county commissioner Tommy Mattingly presented the argument in support of Code Home Rule. Former delegate Ernie Bell presented an equally compelling historical argument to counter Mattingly.

Mattingly said while he was a commissioner his board established a citizens’ committee to review the form of government and they came back with a recommendation of charter, which is a more expanded form of government, Charter usually has a county executive and elected council. Twelve of the state’s 24 counties (including Baltimore City) have a charter form of government. Mattingly said at the time he would have preferred recommendation for Code Home Rule. The voters rejected charter.

“I think the time is right for St. Mary’s County Government. Going to Annapolis is counterproductive.” he said, adding, “The General Assembly can prevent the local community from doing the things that concern us.”

Mattingly noted that things can not only be thwarted by legislators from other parts of the state, but also one misinformed local legislator can derail a project.

That’s the argument that Bell quickly hopped on in addressing the public hearing. Bell was not only a delegate (1983-1994) but also chairman of the county’s first charter writing committee in 1974. Their proposal for charter was rejected by county voters.

Bell brought up the contentious issue of the relocation of the county courthouse to the grounds of the governmental center. The idea was supported by the majority of the then-county commissioners and introduced into the Maryland General Assembly only to be blocked at the 11th hour by one legislator – Senator Roy Dyson. Bell said 90 percent of the people of the county supported keeping the courthouse in downtown Leonardtown, where it still remains today.

This could be the crux of the main argument going forward if the commissioners ultimately decide to let the voters decide in November. Should local decisions be made locally or is having the checks and balances of a vote in Annapolis a good thing?

Bell and Mattingly were two of the only four people who spoke at the Leonardtown hearing. Previous hearings have featured speakers on both sides of the debate along with those trying to make up their minds.

At the Leonardtown hearing one speaker wanted to know what prompted the initiative considering it was not an issue in the commissioners ‘ election.

Commissioner John O’Connor [R; 3rd District] said for him it was an issued that came to the foreground since he was elected and was raised in talking to the county attorney about government process.

“I don’t think I would have recommended change from the outside not knowing how things work from the inside,” O’Connor explained.

In Maryland there are three forms of county government. St. Mary’s County has always had a commissioner form of government. Under the commissioner form county commissioners can only legislate where the legislature has given them authority. Many local decisions are thus in the hands of the legislature in those counties.

Over time most of the counties in Maryland have switched to either a charter or code home rule form of government. St. Mary’s and five other counties still have a commissioner form of government.

The final public hearing on Code Home Rule will be April 12 at 6:30 at Station 22 of the Mechanicsville VFD. After that the commissioners will vote whether to put the issue on the November general election ballot for the voters of the county to decide on whether to change the current form of government or not.

More information on Code Home Rule is available on the county’s website: http://www.co.saint-marys.md.us/

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com