UPPER MARLBORO – The county council voted; now it’s the citizens’ turn. During its last legislative session before the August recess, held July 19, the Prince George’s County Council voted 7-1-1 to put to referendum an amendment to the county charter that would add two at-large members to the council, growing it from nine to […]
UPPER MARLBORO – The county council voted; now it’s the citizens’ turn.
During its last legislative session before the August recess, held July 19, the Prince George’s County Council voted 7-1-1 to put to referendum an amendment to the county charter that would add two at-large members to the council, growing it from nine to 11 members. Councilwoman Mary Lehman voted against the bill, while Councilman Obie Patterson abstained. Patterson also abstained from the vote on the precise language of this and the other ballot questions, which passed 8-0-1.
The charter amendment will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot as Question D. The text submitted by the council to the Prince George’s County Board of Elections reads, “To provide for the election of council members by district and at large, to change the composition of the county council to a system of nine district members and two at large members, and to provide that a council member who has been elected to two consecutive terms of office as a district member shall not serve more than two consecutive terms as an at-large member.”
The last line of the question was added as an amendment to the original proposal just before the vote. All nine council members supported the amendment, which they viewed as a response to concerns raised by community members at the public hearing.
“I appreciate what you did with the amendment, basically specifying that the added at-large seats would have term limits,” Lehman said to council Chair Derrick Davis. “I know we hear a lot of criticism about various efforts to circumvent or do an end-run around term limits, so I applaud you for that.”
But that did not sway Lehman from voting against the measure. She cited concerns about increased costs as well as needing even more votes to arrive at the required majority to pass measures such as charter amendments.
“I’m not going to support the growth by two members of the county council. I just don’t see the justification for expanding the council to 11 members. I’m not sure what it gets the average voter,” Lehman said in explaining her vote.
Councilwoman Deni Taveras also questioned the cost of the proposal, but in the end voted for the proposal to give the citizens a chance to have the final say.
“I do wish that we had considered making it cost-neutral. But at the end of the day, I think that’s something that we have to revisit with the census and I’m fine with that,” she said. “I vote aye to put it to the people.”
The county’s Office of Audits and Investigations found that the bill would cost the county an additional $1,144,112 per fiscal year, beginning with 2020. It would also cost $830,987 in fiscal year 2019, as the new members would take office halfway through that year (in December 2018).
But the impact statement also states, “the economic and social benefits for county residents, coupled with the impact the members may have on the advancement of Prince George’s County within the region, could possibly contribute to significantly enhanced county revenues that may considerably offset the costs.”
It was these benefits that led Davis to vote in favor of the proposal.
“This is a very regional approach to how Prince George’s County turns up with regard to the economy,” he said. “We all take a part of a broader economy, and the reality is that (citizens have) been very well represented by the nine-member council, but this is how we as Prince George’s County show up in the region. We need a little broader representation.”
Many of the neighboring jurisdictions, including Montgomery County, Arlington County, Va., and Washington, D.C., have at-large members serving on their governing bodies. Several municipalities within the county also have at-large representatives, including the city of Bowie, where Councilman Todd Turner served.
Turner said he has served as both a district-based and at-large member in Bowie, and that experience led him to vote in the measure’s favor.
“There is a difference, slight although it may be, about being in a district position versus an at-large position,” he said.
Lehman said she understands the benefits of at-large members. Her objection was to growing the size of the council as opposed to changing the composition of the nine-member body (for example, with seven district and two at-large or six district and three at-large).
“I am personally very supportive of the concept of at-large seats, but I believe we should have at least considered doing them within the framework of the nine member council, as they do in other jurisdictions including Montgomery (County),” she said.
But others on the council thought there was a legal impediment to changing the council’s composition in that way, because it would require changing district boundaries. Typically that occurs after the U.S. census is completed every ten years.
“My understanding is at this stage we couldn’t move forward with limiting the council body,” Vice-Chair Dannielle Glaros said.
Legislative Officer Karen Zavakos, an attorney, agreed.
“You’re not going to be looking at your boundaries until about roughly 2021, 2022,” she said.
At last Tuesday’s session, the council also voted 9-0 on another charter amendment for the voters to decide. Question G would amend the charter to specify that if the county attorney sees a conflict of interest between the legislative and executive branches in a legal matter, both branches should seek outside counsel. This measure is in response to the heated budget fight last spring.
The ballot will also include questions asking the public to approve various bonds to pay for county projects.
As the general election draws closer, Glaros urged residents to be thoughtful in deciding how to vote on all the issues.
“Ultimately, it’s everyone out here who will make that decision in what will actually be an incredibly high voter turnout election. I just really encourage the public to look at all the pros and cons,” she said.