Hollywood, MD — The Commissioners of St. Mary’s County continue to get a mixed message from their constituents about the idea of changing the form of government to Code Home Rule. But at least one of the commissioners has come down squarely on the side of giving the public a chance to vote in a referendum in next November’s election.

Commissioner Tom Jarboe {R – 1st District] spoke Oct. 14 at the second of seven public hearings at the Hollywood Rescue Squad. Jarboe noted that it was not only the county’s legislative delegation in Annapolis that had to vote on local bills, but the entire legislature. “A whole lot of people (in the legislature) make decisions contrary to the way the majority of the people of St. Mary’s County think,” he said.

Supporting a referendum, Jarboe said, “In the end of the day the voters make the decision.”

But others who spoke at the meeting said the extra checks and balances of having the legislature look at ideas was a good thing. Keith Harless of Lexington Park said under Code Home Rule: “I actually see less transparency. The number of opportunities for citizens will be less.”

During an information session before public comments, County Attorney George Sparling went over a handout that showed the progress of an actual bill on property maintenance and how that same bill would have progressed under Code Home Rule. Instead of taking the actual 16 months that it did, the bill could have passed in two months under Code Home Rule, he said.

Counties in Maryland operate under three possible forms of government: County Commissioner, Code Home Rule or Charter. St. Mary’s County has had the commissioner form of government since 1838. St. Mary’s is only one of six of the 24 government jurisdictions with the county commissioner form of government. Six others, including Charles, are Code Home Rule counties. The third option in Maryland, Charter form of government, is embraced by the remaining 12 jurisdictions. Two of them, Talbot and Dorchester, do not have county executives, while the others do.

Under Code Home Rule most of the local laws which now have to be introduced in and passed by the Maryland General Assembly would be handled locally, with local hearings by the county commissioners acting as a legislative body.

St. Mary’s County voters have rejected a Charter government on two occasions, but Code Home Rule has never been put to a vote. At the Hollywood VRS meeting, former commissioner Barbara Thompson, a member of the first charter writing board, said that government was “more structured” under Charter than Code Home Rule.

St. Mary’s County Planning Commission Chairman Howard Thompson, a member of the Democratic Central Committee, said he felt Code Home Rule was a good idea.  “It can take a lot of pressure off the legislators so they can do other things,” he said.

David Willenborg, a member of the St. Mary’s County Republican Central Committee, came down on the opposite side. He said the existing commissioner board wouldn’t be in office forever. “I have visions of Montgomery County that says you can’t smoke in a car,” he said of an imagined piece of legislation from a future commissioner board.

“Government was intended to be slow and deliberate,” Willenborg said of the current process for enacting laws. He said the system had checks and balances instead of a law moving quickly through the legislature.

Sparling noted the possibility of citizens petitioning a local bill to referendum under Code Home Rule as one of its advantages. But Harless observed the difficulty of getting signatures of ten percent of the voters within 45 days. He said that amounted to 6,700 people, a lofty challenge.

Roy Fedders, who also spoke at the first hearing at the Ridge VFD, renewed his opposition to Code Home Rule. “This group of commissioners wants to change something that is as old as the country.’ He said. But Fedders was reminded that it would be up to the people instead of the commissioners to actually make the change.

White Commissioner President Randy Guy and Commissioner Todd Morgan also seemed to indicate support for the idea, Commissioner Mike Hewitt [R – 2nd District] was more cautious. “I could go either way,” he said, but then echoed Jarboe’s comments about the Democratic controlled Maryland General Assembly. He said when a local bill doesn’t even come out of legislative committee that violated “local courtesy.”

The next public hearing will be Tuesday, Nov. 10 at the Second District Volunteer Fire Department. The commissioners will hold four hearings January through April of next year before formally voting whether to take the idea to the voters next November.

Contact Dick Myers at dick.myers@thebaynet.com