In Montgomery County, which prides itself on being a bastion of "good government," voters approved a measure last week that makes it harder for the public to know what is going on inside the corridors of power.
The charter amendment on the ballot didn't say that, however. It was titled "Open Meetings, Public Meetings -- Consistency with State Laws." The voters approved it, with 55 percent in favor.
"I don't think people understood it," said Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large), a departing County Council member who voted on the council against sending the question to referendum. "The way it's worded, it sounds as if it's opening up local meetings even more, but it's not; it's the reverse."
He said the county law "provided for more openness" than the state's, so Tuesday's vote made it easier for the council to close its doors and documents.
Surprised? It happens almost every election. Politicians, voters and the media focus on an array of candidates running for office but seldom on often-bewildering ballot questions, usually written in arcane legalese that tends to obscure rather than illuminate their intent and effect.
Then voters emerge from the polling places scratching their heads.
"There were a lot of questions about what the state wants to spend money on, like roads and such," said Dawanna James, 30, of Hyattsville after casting her ballot Tuesday on issues that actually related to county, not state, spending. "I probably should have researched those, because I'm not sure where the money is coming from to fund them."
How about the taxpayers?
In Prince George's County, voters went along with the spending requests, giving the county -- and indirectly themselves -- approval to borrow $111.6 million to design, construct, renovate, relocate or expand county buildings, libraries, community college facilities, public safety facilities, roads, bridges and parking lots.
Interest on the bonds is paid from the county's tax-financed general fund. So whether they knew it or not, Prince George's residents were voting to increase what the county pays for all that debt, with the money coming from taxpayers.
Ballot questions generally appear because elected leaders want them there, they don't want to vote on them themselves or they must by law send the issue to the voters.
Questions initiated by citizens sometimes have a harder time getting on the ballot. When a group of Prince George's residents obtained the required 10,000 signatures this year for a ballot measure to repeal legislation the group considered too pro-development, the county went to court to keep it off the ballot. The case is now before the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and the question did not make it onto Tuesday's ballot.
Prince George's residents weren't asked to vote on up to $150 million in county-issued bonds for the National Harbor project on the Potomac River below the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
That was a "special obligation" issue, with bondholders being repaid from taxes on the private hotels and convention center properties the proceeds would help build, not from taxpayers directly. That kept it off the ballot.
Meanwhile, in rapidly suburbanizing Charles and Frederick counties, voters were asked Tuesday whether they wanted to increase local government powers by adopting "code home rule" that would allow county commissioners to enact laws that now have to be passed in Annapolis.
Charles commissioners had withheld the question from the 2000 ballot to allow more time to educate the public. The voters approved the change with 52 percent of the ballots cast.
But northwest of Washington in Frederick, voters rejected the same change by a 2 to 1 margin. Commissioner John L. Thompson Jr. (R), a growth opponent who was the apparent top vote-getter among 10 candidates for the county governing board, was the measure's main proponent, but several other candidates opposed it.
The ballot contained no highfalutin' language, but it didn't necessarily make clear to the voters what was at stake.
"In the case of code home rule, the [Maryland] constitution just says the question shall be phrased, you're either for it or against it. That doesn't tell voters anything what they're voting on," Thompson said.
Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), who opposed the "open meetings" question, supported another one to change the county charter so that legislation labeled "emergency" would be called "expedited." Either way, the legislation could take effect immediately, rather than after 90 days, as is otherwise the case.
The measure also would "broaden the reasons" the council could use to pass "expedited" legislation, an expansion of legislative power that was not explained on the ballot. The question won overwhelmingly.
Denis likened the change to truth in labeling: "I always felt in Annapolis that most emergency legislation was fraudulently promoted and advertised, and all it meant was you get a supermajority and short-circuit process. Words are powerful. To expedite is accurate."
So what's different?
"You can still short-cut the process," Denis said. "You just can't call it an emergency."
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.