From the (Havre de Grace) Record —-
by Allan Voight
I covered my first election in Harford County in 1972, the year Richard Nixon won his second term as president by swamping George McGovern. It was also the year Harford County voters approved a home rule charter and elected the first county executive and county council. It was also the first time I was old enough to vote — the minimum age was 21 in those days. I won’t tell you who got my vote for president or for the local offices. I will tell you I voted for the charter. If memory serves me correct, four Maryland counties had charter ballot questions that year: Harford, Cecil, St. Mary’s and Kent, but don’t hold me to the other two.
With a couple of weeks to go before election day 1972, I wrote a freelance piece about the charter elections in Maryland for a trade paper that was published by the National Association of Counties, which supported home rule efforts for what seems like obvious reasons to me now but probably not so much back then — the bigger the government the more government officials and employees, all the more to belong to NACO. As I did interviews for the articles, I was pretty sure the charter question would pass in Harford and reasonably sure the questions would fail in Cecil and the other two counties. That’s what happened.
People who opposed the charters in all four of those counties said they would expand the reach of county government, and with it the cost. Looking back on what happened in Harford, the critics were right. The county budget in the last year of the old board of county commissioners was something like $30 million, counting the school system’s cut. The budget passed the $100 million within 10 years. Today Harford’s operating budget is $577 million.
Supporters of charter in Harford believed the county had grown to the point where it needed more professional management, more power to make its own laws and more accountability over its elected officials. County commissioners were a hybrid of administrators and legislators whose power to make laws was constricted by the state legislature. The commissioners typically met once a week and handled everything from zoning for a shopping center or 200-home development to farmers’ claims for livestock damage by marauding dogs. It was a rural governance system which basically viewed a county as a local bureau of the state, not an autonomous unit making decisions that affected the daily lives of its citizens — or so proponents claimed.
I’m sure most readers of The Record on the Cecil County side of the Susquehanna know they will get another crack Tuesday at voting for or against a home rule charter. As my colleague Bryna Zumer reports elsewhere in today’s edition of The Record, there have been five previous charter votes in Cecil dating back to 1968 and all have lost. The latest vote, in 1996, was 13,000 against, 9,200 for.