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Howard Council Thinks Neuter Is Better

By Peter Maass
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 18, 1996; Page C05

It's not that the Howard County Council has anything against men, mind you. Four of its five members are men. Yet it has decided that the county Charter should be cleansed of all "he's" and any other gender-specific language.

On Nov. 5, Howard residents will vote on an amendment that seeks to neuter the Charter. Every time the word "he" appears, it will be followed, under the amendment, by the words "or she." "Chairman" will be eased into retirement and replaced by "chairperson." A reference to "draftsman" will be redrafted to become the word "drafter."

"It is both symbolic and sends a message," said council member Mary C. Lorsung (D-4th District), who shepherded the amendment through the council. "The message is that women are as much a part of the governing process as men. And quite frankly, that has not always been the case."

Howard, a Republican-controlled county between Washington and Baltimore, has seldom been confused politically with Takoma Park. Still, it does have the state's toughest anti-smoking ordinance and has strongly promoted self-esteem programs in middle schools.

Some cynics might view the proposed Charter amendment as a case of political correctness gone overboard, especially since the Charter, written in 1968, already contains an amendment that says any gender-specific word or phrase should be understood as being gender-neutral. But telling people to ignore a linguistic eyesore is not the same as getting rid of it, which is what the council has asked voters to do.

"It's an excellent idea," said Thomas Meachun, who headed the county's Charter Review Commission. "There's no reason to maintain gender language one way or another. It's a good idea to make it as neutral as possible."

The decision to make the change happened in a roundabout way. The review commission was working on the wording of an amendment and decided to use gender-neutral language. Then, when the commission's proposals went before the council, the local chapter of the League of Women Voters suggested that the entire Charter be redone in gender-neutral words.

Lorsung, the only woman on the council, thought that was a reasonable idea. Initially, some fears were voiced that it would require a separate amendment for each wording change, a bureaucratically cumbersome process that might confuse voters with 50 or more amendments cluttering up the ballot.

But the county's lawyers decided the changes could be accomplished in one long amendment, and so the council went along. Lorsung says there was "no extended discussion" of the issue.

The only bump on the road has been a requirement in the Charter that all proposed amendments be advertised in a local newspaper. This year, the cost is $8,000. The 11 other proposed amendments are relatively brief and, put together, take up slightly less column space in the county's notice than the gender amendment, known as Question M. So, instead of paying for two pages of advertising space in a newspaper, the county is paying for four pages.

Otherwise, there's not much of a fiscal impact. Assuming at least one of the other amendments passes -- and officials say they think all will pass -- the Charter was going to be reprinted anyway.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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