COLLEGE PARK — Despite strong public opposition to the measure, the College Park City Council will move forward with a nonbinding advisory question on this year’s election ballot that could extend council member terms from two years to four years.
The council voted to create a Charter Review Commission in November to objectively research and present a report to the council detailing the potential pros and cons of extending term limits. The council discussed the commission’s report, which was released May 31, at their July 2 council meeting.
The 131-page report indicates that, of the 94 public comments it received, 82 comments opposed the change and only 10 supported the change. Two of the comments did not pertain to the topic of extending council terms, according to the report.
The 10-member commission held two public forums – one at City Hall and one at Davis Hall – and solicited comments by mail, in-person and online.
P.J. Brennan, a District 2 council member, expressed his support with moving forward to both help educate city residents during the upcoming election and to gather feedback from a larger group of voters.
“I don’t know that that particular engagement was a representative sample of the city,” he said. “In order to get that fullest picture, I kind of lean back towards going to the populace that engages in the election process to get a clearer understanding of that.”
The 94 public comments represent only a fraction of registered voters in the city. According to the commission’s report, in the city’s most recent election, 2,648 out of 18,299 registered voters – 14% – cast a ballot.
In addition to the question of lengthening terms, District 3 council member John Rigg suggested the ballot should also include a question regarding whether the terms should run concurrent or staggered.
“[The two questions] are certainly separable,” Rigg said.
City Clerk Janeen Miller asked the council to finalize the language of the questions before the end of next month. That way, she said, they can be voted on during the council’s first meeting in September before the ballots are sent to the printer later that month.
The possibility of extending the council’s terms was originally discussed during the council’s February 2018 retreat.
Last summer, Rockville Mayor Bridget Newton spoke to the council about her city’s experience in lengthening terms from two years to four years. In Rockville, the issue was presented to voters three times before it was passed.
Council members have largely supported the idea of lengthening terms because of some of the reasons highlighted by Newton. Newton told the council that the extended terms have freed council members from constant campaigning, and familiarity with council procedures have helped the city run more efficiently.
Residents who have publicly commented about the proposed change have been less supportive.
According to the commission’s report, residents voiced concerns about the council’s loss of accountability if the terms are extended.
“Many City residents reported to the Commission that increasing the term of office of College Park Mayor and Council from two years to four years reduces democracy, in that: it reduces the power of the individuals to meet potential candidates; reduces their power to vote in elections; and reduces the ability of citizens to influence the decision-making processes of their City government,” the report states.
The report also included a summary of public comments which questioned the efficiency of extending term limits.
“A change to staggered terms would still require elections every two years; that any reduction in costs to the City for holding elections for half of the Council would be minimal; and that any efficiency gained by onboarding fewer new Councilmembers would be minimal,” according to the report.
Because the advisory question is nonbinding, Miller emphasized to the council that more discussion will still be necessary regardless of the results of the election. An ordinance would still need to pass and the public would have additional opportunities to comment.
“It’s not going to end with the vote on Nov. 5,” she said.