UPPER MARLBORO – It might be getting a bit more crowded on the county council dais.
On June 14, the county council voted 7-0 to introduce a measure that, if it succeeds after a public hearing and a second vote, would be submitted to referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot and amend the Prince George’s County Charter. The amendment would add two at-large seats to the Prince George’s County Council, to be filled by voters county-wide. Currently, the body only contains district council members who are elected only by residents of their specific districts.
The amendment also specifies that a district council member who has already served the maximum two terms allowed by the current charter would still be eligible for one of the at-large seats, potentially doubling the time a councilmember could serve from two to four terms.
The measure, CB 40-2016, was sponsored by Council Chair Derrick Davis, Vice-Chair Dannielle Glaros and council members Todd Turner and Deni Taveras.
Davis said the county’s original charter from 1970 did include at-large members. His first exposure to the issue came in 2000 when he was a member of the charter review commission, which meets every four years to advise the council on ways to improve governance through amending the charter.
“This getting to the ballot is a culmination of processes, for me, that started in 2000. If you go back and look at all the charter reviews, you will see there have been many recommendations that have been made over the years, every four years,” Davis said.
Prior to the vote, the council heard from a panel of speakers about regional governance issues. One speaker, Rosalyn Pugh, said adding at-large members would bring more equality with the executive branch.
“The executive branch has a county executive who is elected county-wide, while we have our county council members elected in the legislative branch only district-wide. And so we have an imbalance between the two branches of government,” she said.
The primary benefit, as Davis sees it, would be the ability for the council to more easily look at issues holistically as opposed to just how they would benefit the individual district each member represents.
“As opposed to focusing on creating opportunities, we are focused on the few opportunities that are here and how we divide it up. We become more in-tune to division and not in-tune to multiplication, and I think division is our undermining,” he said.
Turner agreed with the argument as a result of his experiences in municipal government, where he served as both a district-based and at-large council member.
“What I found during that was your focus – always the same as a member of a body; you want to do what’s in the best interest of the residents – you also had somewhat more freedom being in an at-large position to take on issues that you saw, in my case it was city-wide as opposed to just my district,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to think about how that would impact the rest of the county.”
Councilmembers also preemptively responded to an anticipated counter-argument that this is an attempt by current office holders to circumvent term limits.
“This is clearly an attempt to structure our governance to be competitive in this region. It starts with our internal structure and sort of disavows the notion that internally we need to fight over the crumbs. This is the furthest thing from personal. This is clearly, from my perspective, about the politics of Prince George’s County in the region,” Davis said.
Although the measure cleared the first hurdle and is now headed for public hearing, some council members did express reservations.
Councilwoman Mary Lehman wondered why the decision was made to go with nine district and two at-large as opposed to restructuring to maintain the same number of members but enlarge the districts to accommodate the at-large councilmembers. She mentioned that Montgomery County has a 5-4 split between district and at-large members.
“One question I have, I’m not necessarily opposed to expanding the legislative branch to have, I’d like to think, better representation, but where’s the debate about what that looks like?” she said.
Lehman also brought up the issue of cost. The county is dealing with a structural deficit already.
“What is the fiscal impact of adding two more council members to this body? It’s not zero, I can assure you, and so residents deserve to know what the price tag is,” she said.
But Davis said thinking more in terms of one county versus district-by-district would encourage more development and, thus, revenue.
“People always talk about penny wise, pound foolish. When you’re fighting over pennies, you never get to fight for dollars,” he said. “This is not about tunnel vision. This is about the regional vision for Prince George’s County and the state vision for Prince George’s County and our rightful place in it.”
CB 40-2016 next goes to a public hearing, which was set for July 11 at 7 p.m. after Lehman requested an evening time to allow more citizens to participate. If it passes the subsequent vote by the council, it will be sent to the board of elections and must be certified by August 15 to appear on the November ballot. All referenda in the county must be on a presidential election year ballot.
Recognizing this could be a contentious issue, Glaros urged residents to be thoughtful in considering the proposal.
“We live in an environment, a very hostile environment, I think, with the national election scene, and I would urge folks to sort of listen, listen and listen and weigh and think about what you feel are the pros and cons,” she said.