Rank-and-file residents and local lawmakers presented their case this week for the passage of legislation that would affect nearly everyone in Charles County -- teachers, boaters, seniors, homeowners. Not even elected officials would be immune.
Representatives from the teachers union and others suggested upending the process for filling vacancies on the Board of Education. And the Charles chapter of the NAACP revived a proposal for changing the way the county commissioners are elected.
Comments on the more than two dozen legislative requests came at a public hearing Monday night meant to shape the package of bills that the Board of County Commissioners will consider locally or press for in Annapolis when the General Assembly convenes in January. More than 60 people attended.
William M. Braxton, president of the local NAACP branch, said Charles County has yet to elect a black commissioner or state legislator because candidates must win support countywide. Switching to district-by-district voting, he said, would allow candidates to be elected by their peers.
"At-large voting does not truly represent the people, regardless of race," he told the commissioners. "The people of the county need to be fully represented."
Maryland residents choose their county officials through a widely varying array of voting systems. In Montgomery, four council members are elected at large and five from districts. In Prince George's, all nine members are elected from districts.
In Charles, where four of the five commissioners must meet a district residency requirement but all are elected at large, Braxton pointed to the candidacy of Reginald Kearney, the black editor of a weekly newspaper who ran for commissioner in 1998 and 2002. Kearney won his Waldorf area district both years but lost countywide.
"With Waldorf being predominately African American," Kearney said in an interview, "there should have been a black county commissioner from that area years ago."
The election process "needs to be changed because the face of the county is changing," he said.
Between 2000 and 2003, the black population in Charles increased 22 percent. Blacks make up 30 percent of county residents, compared with 18 percent in 1990.
Edith J. Patterson (D-Pomfret) became the first black commissioner in January when she was appointed to fill a vacancy. She said blacks have shown they can win countywide in elections for the school board, and she wants to give the at-large system a chance. Patterson is concerned that a district-based system could lead to a polarized board, with each commissioner focused solely on his or her sliver of the county.
In another proposed change in voting, the Education Association of Charles County formally presented its plan to shift responsibility from the school board to the county commissioners for filling openings on the panel.
The largest showing at Monday night's hearing came from a group of real estate agents opposed to legislation they said would drive up the price of homes in the county.
This fall, the county administrator's office proposed changing state law to give Charles the flexibility to charge buyers of new homes up to $15,000 to help the county pay for the construction of schools. Under the current rate, homeowners pay an excise tax of $10,000 over a 10-year period.
Art Payne, chairman of the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors, warned that the additional tax would discourage people from buying homes. "We're trying to hold down the cost of homeownership," he said.
In preparation for Monday's hearing, state Dels. Murray D. Levy (D) and W. Daniel Mayer (R) shared with the commissioners their plans to work on a proposal intended to lower the tax bills of senior citizens, National Guard troops and new teachers.
Levy wants to provide an income tax credit to active members of the National Guard, regardless of whether they are stationed overseas. He also suggested revisiting a temporary property tax break for low-income seniors he proposed in May. His plan would allow the county to temporarily defer the property taxes of senior citizens and other low income residents.
Mayer plans to introduce legislation that would allow counties to provide a $1,200-a-year tax credit for first- and second-year teachers that could be used to help cover the cost of housing. And under a second bill Mayer plans to submit at the request of a constituent, motorboaters applying for licenses with the Department of Natural Resources would have to undergo background checks and carry insurance.