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Anne Arundel ballot issues cruise to passage

Voters OK 15 changes to county charter; long lines blamed on longest ballot in state

By Erin Cox, The Baltimore Sun

11:16 AM PST, November 8, 2012

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Anne Arundel voters passed all 15 county charter amendments on Tuesday's ballot, most by a landslide.

Among the changes are new rules for removing elected officials from office and a slight shift in the balance of power between the county executive and the County Council.

Compared with state ballot questions that drew record ad spending and addressed the controversial issues of gay marriage, gambling and immigration, Anne Arundel's bevy of local questions seemed to be overlooked, Council Chairman Derek Fink said.

"I don't think there was a lot of publicity on them such as [was given to] the state questions," said Fink, a Pasadena Republican. "I think there wasn't enough information about them. ... We put way too many questions on the ballot."

The questions made Anne Arundel's ballot the longest in the state and was blamed for some of the long lines at polling precincts, even though nearly half the voters skipped the local issues.

Lawmakers and political observers had feared ballot-box fatigue would lead voters to ignore the local questions at the end of the ballot, but at least 126,590 votes were cast on each issue — roughly 52 percent of the Anne Arundel votes cast in the presidential contest.

The lack of information about the initiatives could have ensured their passage, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Most people, if they don't really know anything, will just vote yes," Nataf said. "They'll figure if it's on there, it's probably for a good reason."

Nataf said electronic machines, which require voters to scroll through the entire ballot to cast a single vote, might have drawn attention to local issues that would have otherwise been ignored.

"It's not like the good old days, when you could fill out the front of a paper ballot and walk away," Nataf said. "It really takes a deliberate act for someone to see a question and press 'next.' "

The local questions cover issues that have large and small impacts on government. One strips line-item veto power from the county executive, except in certain circumstances; another clarifies that the budget can be distributed in an electronic format instead of on paper.

The line-item veto measure, which passed by the smallest margin among the ballot questions, garnered 62 percent of the ballots cast.

County Executive John R. Leopold had opposed losing the line-item veto and said he thought voters might have misunderstood the question. He relayed an anecdote about a voter at the Lake Shore post office who proudly told the county executive of his plans to vote in favor of the question.

"He said, 'I want you to have line-item veto power,' " Leopold recalled. "I thanked him, but I told him if he wanted that, he'd have to vote against it. ... I think there may have been some confusion on that."

Another ballot question shifted the time frame for the council to deliberate on the budget, a move that gives the county executive an added two weeks to analyze how state decisions affect local spending.

With the charter changes, new rules are spelled out for removing the county executive and council members from office if they commit certain crimes.

One measure resolves an issue that arose when a former councilman served a five-month prison term this year for failing to file an income tax return. The council removed Severn Democrat Daryl Jones from office, citing his absence. Jones' lawsuit contesting the move is pending before the Maryland Court of Appeals. The new measure would spell out when the council is allowed to kick out a colleague.

Also, the council will now have a way to break ties when trying to fill a vacancy. The current council went through more than 100 rounds of votes before settling on Jones' successor, Democrat Peter I. Smith.

Other approved measures grant the council a one-month recess from meetings in August and define which day is the official start of its term.

More changes set term limits for members of the Ethics Commission and the Board of Appeals, a quasi-judicial body that reviews county decisions on everything from code enforcement tickets to personnel matters. Another measure creates a fund dedicated to paying health care premiums for retired county employees.

Other measures set a schedule for audits, increase the number of people who serve on the Charter Review Commission, limit how a type of revenue called "bond premium" can be spent, and define which day a bill becomes law if it is returned unsigned by the county executive.

All of the measures passed Tuesday take effect by the end of the year.