Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Delegation to draft referendum on Carroll County police force

Group members expected to meet by the end of week

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Carroll commissioners have a little time to try and persuade the county’s delegation to the Maryland General Assembly that they, not voters, should make the decision to create a county police force.

The delegation met Jan. 24 to consider whether the issue should go to referendum, as well as deliberate other proposed Carroll County legislation for the legislative session in Annapolis.

Delegation members are drafting a referendum, and are expected to meet by the end of this week to talk about sending it to the entire General Assembly for a vote. No date has been set.

Typically, bills that pertain only to a county are passed if they have the support of the delegation that sponsors them.

Commissioners voted 3-0 on Oct. 4 to use their authority under state law to create a police force. On Jan. 8, they introduced an ordinance to create the force headed by a chief that they appoint and name the county police as Carroll’s primary law enforcement.

Since the state gives them that authority, only the state can bring the issue to referendum. The county’s delegation asked Carroll County residents at its hearing on proposed legislation whether they wanted the issue to go to referendum.

Commission President Julia W. Gouge (R) of Hampstead attended the delegation’s deliberation of proposed bills, asking them to reconsider taking the issue to referendum.

‘‘It was only a small majority,” Gouge said about the nearly 30 people who spoke in support of the referendum, which included a mix of sheriff’s deputies and residents.

No one spoke in favor of the county’s ordinance.

Haines responded to Gouge by saying ‘‘Well you’ll find out when it goes to referendum.”

Differing of opinions

The decision to create the county police force has been met with resistance from the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Kenneth L. Tregoning (R) has said his department should be the primary law enforcement agency and that the money saved from transitioning away from the resident trooper program should be used to add more officers on the street as opposed to starting up a police force.

The county spent $5.2 million this year for 45 resident troopers and an administrative assistant. The budget for the Sheriff’s Office for the year is $4.8 million, which pays for 71 sworn officers and 29 civilians.

A task force of Carroll government staff members provided three scenarios: continue using Maryland State Police to supplement the Sheriff’s Office; expand the Sheriff’s Office; or create a county police force.

Gouge told the delegation that Tregoning ways always on board with the county creating a police department.

‘‘Recently we said no to a salary increase for one of his people,” she said. ‘‘It seemed to be the turning point. It changed everything.”

Tregoning disagreed. ‘‘Her statement was totally inaccurate,” he said. ‘‘This decision was part of their decision to go a county police force.”

Tregoning said commissioners denied the request but in the end gave the Sheriff’s Office permission to use money already in its budget.

Tregoning has said that it was his belief that his department would be expanded when the resident program was phased out.

Gouge also told the delegation that people were afraid to speak out in favor at the hearing.

People have told her, she said, that they were ‘‘not speaking for fear of retribution.”

Tregoning reacted strongly to Gouge’s comment to the delegation.

‘‘That is an asinine statement,” he said. ‘‘That a police officer whose oath it is to protect and serve would compromise that oath. I’m highly offended.”

‘‘That shows a lack of character and a lack of trust in their public safety officers and the public who they represent should be offended.”

Community involvement

The county’s delegation voiced concern that the decision to create the force is moving forward quickly, and criticized commissioners for not reaching out more to the community. They also questioned the commissioners’ decision to hold a hearing on the ordinance during the morning of a weekday.

In response, commissioners added another hearing for 7 p.m. Feb. 19 at Oklahoma Road Middle School, 6300 Oklahoma Road, Eldersburg, in addition to the one scheduled for 10 a.m. today in Room 003 of the County Office Building in Westminster.

They also added a 10 a.m. Tuesday discussion on local policing, and a community discussion for 10 a.m. Saturday in Room 003 of the County Office Building in Westminster.

The Sheriff’s Office has questioned the amount of effort and time that went into reaching out to the community when commissioners were considering the county’s noise ordinance and the lack of effort regarding the county police force ordinance.

About a dozen workshops and informational meetings were held in the evening throughout the county. The task force also included residents as well as a representative from the Sheriff’s Office, said Lt. Phil Kasten, Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

Commissioners Michael D. Zimmer (R) of Eldersburg and Dean L. Minnich (R) of Westminster said Tuesday in separate interviews that in hindsight they wish they had taken a similar approach. Commission President Julia Gouge could not be reached for comment by The Gazette’s Wednesday press time.

‘‘It’s a valid criticism,” Zimmer said of not scheduling meetings with the public prior to making a decision. ‘‘If I had it to do over again, I would take this report all over [the county]. I think we made a big mistake.”

Minnich agreed, adding he too would have done things differently. ‘‘Absolutely. I would have said ‘we need to have this information out there.’ We thought we had worked out in the open.”

Minnich said he didn’t, because he thought everyone was in agreement and the issue had been discussed for a number of years.

Zimmer and Minnich said they did not expect the community meetings they have added will make a difference in how they voted regarding a county force.

‘‘Actually no,” Minnich said. ‘‘Especially with some of the comments I’ve received recently.” Zimmer said, ‘‘I try to keep an open mind. But it’s pretty hard to just turn that thinking around.”

When asked whether people will feel like they are wasting their time since their minds are made up, Zimmer responded, ‘‘Well I can understand that.”