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Other commissioners hesitant to jump on board yet

By AMANDA SCOTT

Staff writer

Last week, Calvert County Commissioner Susan Shaw (R) suggested to the board that it explore a new form of government for the county, known as “code home rule.”

During her commissioner’s report Dec. 10, Shaw said she would “like to see us go to code home rule form of government. I feel like we really — we really should take that step. Our population has increased. The complexity of what we do has increased, and I would just suggest to my fellow commissioners that we could work on that in the coming year, and it would go to referendum the same time as the next election. So, please think about that.”

Currently, Calvert is governed under a commissioner form of government, which dictates that the Maryland General Assembly legislates for the county. While the BOCC exercises executive and legislative functions and may enact ordinances, its legislative power is “limited to those areas authorized by the General Assembly, enabling legislation, or public local laws,” according to the Maryland Manual On-Line.

Under code home rule, the manual states, the county can “exercise broad legislative authority.” Code home rule counties can enact, repeal or amend local laws of a wide array of matters, according to the MMO. However, code counties cannot create new taxes or license or franchise fees that already weren’t authorized at the time the county received code home rule status. When it comes to excise taxes, code counties can enact a school construction excise tax and an agriculture excise tax for the purchase of transferrable development rights, if it’s not already levying a development impact fee.

Maryland counties have had the option of governing under code home rule since 1915, and six of the state’s 23 counties operate under code home rule, according to the manual.

The county commissioners’ title and power to conduct county business would be retained under code home rule, according to the state manual.

“I think it’s time — past time,” Shaw said during a phone interview Monday. During the interview, she said the change “has to do with how often and for what we have to go to the legislature to get public local laws passed.”

In 2004, the then-board of county commissioners placed a referendum on code home rule on the November ballot. That referendum failed.

During her commissioner’s report last week, Shaw said the matter “was brought up as a tax issue when it wasn’t a tax issue.”

On Monday, Shaw said she thinks “we’re in a better position right now ... to counteract that.”

“I think now, there’s a very good understanding in Calvert County that the best government is the government closest to the people,” she said Monday. “We’re the people you see at the grocery store, at the nonprofit functions. We’re making all kinds of personal sacrifices to do this job — not that the legislators aren’t. It’s just not [only] the local legislators who are voting on this stuff. It’s the whole legislature.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Prince George’s), who has opined before that he supports charter and code home rule forms of county government, said Monday he thinks “it’s a step in the right direction. I’ve always believed the government closest to the people governs best.”

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) said Tuesday afternoon, “It never hurts to have a discussion of matters but I think a lot of people are skeptical about giving – making it easier for future boards of county commissioners to” create and alter taxes and implement new local laws.

“Let me just say this,” O’Donnell said, “in 2004 we had a referendum come up and it was rejected very soundly. ... So my sense is that the citizens of Calvert County think the current form of government has served well. ... I’m not sure that it’s an improvement but it’s an item that we shouldn’t fear discussing either.”

Del. Mark N. Fisher (R-Calvert) could not be reached for comment before time of press.

Commissioners’ President Pat Nutter (R) and Commissioner Evan Slaughenhoupt (R) both said Monday they would like to look into the matter before taking a stance.

“It’s kind of a complex subject,” Slaughenhoupt said, adding that he can see the pros and cons of switching.

Commissioner Gerald W. “Jerry” Clark (R) said Monday the commissioners haven’t discussed the matter yet, and he isn’t sure now is the time to do so.

“Right now, for me, we have so many difficult decisions going forward ... that I don’t know if I’m ready to jump into that discussion,” he said, adding that he thinks the discussion should be brought up by citizens and not the board.

When asked why she’s pursuing the matter now when she has announced she isn’t running for re-election in 2014, Shaw said, “I just think the timing is right, and I would like to get this accomplished before I leave office because I feel like it would be a good accomplishment to leave behind. No, I’m not coming back, but I want what’s best for Calvert County.”

ascott@somdnews.com