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Commentary Government & Politics

Opinion: Why are St. Mary’s County commissioners blocking the vote-by-district legislation?

Sunset near Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County. Photo by Angela Breck.

By Brandon Russell

The writer is a community organizer and former Democratic candidate for St. Mary’s County commissioner.

Last week the commissioners in St. Mary’s County decided which legislative proposals to send forward to the county’s legislative delegation. Four proposals were approved, while three were not. The approved proposals were all submitted by departments in county government:

  1. A Department of Finance request for authority to issue $56 million in bonds to finance projects.

  2. A Department of Finance request to extend the property transfer tax until 2028 (original termination date was July 2020).

  3. A Department of Aging request to allow low-stakes gaming at county senior centers.

  4. A request from MetCom, the water and sewer utility, to amend/update/define language in local laws regarding sanitary districts and infrastructure.

There were also three citizen submitted proposals. Two requested legislation to change voting for commissioners from at-large to by-district. The third was a request to change offices like sheriff and state’s attorney to non-partisan elections.

During the 2021 legislative session Del. Brian Crosby (D-St. Mary’s) filed a bill, HB 655, to accomplish by-district voting for the county commissioners. The commissioners were not a fan of this bill — their chief complaint being that it did not follow their preferred “process.” In other words, it was not brought before them for discussion before being filed in the State House. The previous Board of Commissioners voted twice to support an amendment to the bill requiring a referendum during the 2022 election, which would have allowed the people of St. Mary’s County to vote on this change. Ultimately, the bill did not pass.

At the commissioner meeting on Dec. 6, Commissioner Eric Colvin said that state delegates and senators are open for legislative ideas from residents of the county. He continued by saying the three citizen-submitted proposals should be dismissed and the citizens advised to contact their respective state representatives. He did this despite a consensus at the meeting on Nov. 29 that the commissioners would take no position on citizen submitted proposals and act only as a conduit through which they could be forwarded.

“This board has made it clear that we are opposed to these changes in the past….I have no desire to forward something I am opposed to,” Colvin said at the Dec. 6 meeting. Commissioners James Guy and Mike Alderson voted with Colvin to return these to the citizens. Commissioner Michael Hewitt rightly pointed out that standard procedure has been to forward proposals with no opinion from the commissioners, and Commissioner Scott Ostrow agreed.

It is disheartening that the commissioners continue to move the goal post. They complained the process was not followed but when the process is followed, they are still unsatisfied. It’s laughable for them to unanimously forward legislation allowing them to increase borrowing authority to spend more taxpayer money while routinely ignoring residents’ input on a host of issues.

Perhaps the real reason the commissioners continue to stand in the way is because they are afraid of losing their party’s majority on the Board of Commissioners. In fact, Commissioner Colvin’s district would be a highly competitive seat if voting was done by-district. If all commissioners should work together for the good of the county, as Colvin himself has argued in the past, then political party should not matter. It shouldn’t matter for elected officials making decisions, and it shouldn’t matter for residents who wish to participate in the process. Public servants should work together no matter how they are elected, no matter who does or does not vote for them.

The arguments against voting by district say more about those who make them than they do about the idea itself. We vote for all other government representatives by district and county commissioners should be no different.

When will the St. Mary’s County commissioners take residents’ feedback seriously?