Residents debate adding at-large Seats

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UPPER MARLBORO – County residents came out in force to have their say in not only who will represent them, but how many people will represent them.

The county council held a public hearing on July 11 to get residents’ comments on CB 40-2016, which would add a referendum to the November ballot asking voters to decide whether the council should add two new at-large members to its ranks. Members who had previously served as district-based representatives would be eligible to fill the new at-large seats.

Residents packed the hearing room, with approximately 30 giving testimony. The ratio of those against the measure to those in favor of it was more than two-to-one, and residents expressed a variety of reasons for taking either position.

A major theme brought up by many opponents was the fact that the bill appears to be a way for the sitting council members to circumvent term limits.

“This is another obvious attempt to give some of you additional time on the council. The self-serving nature of the proposal is so glaring that I don’t need to dwell on the issue,” said Accokeek resident Tommi Makila.

Another Accokeek resident, Philip Van Wiltenburg, speaking on behalf of the Greater Accokeek Civic Association, agreed about the importance of term limits. He said voters have already shown their disfavor with eliminating term limits as recently as 2014, with Question J.

“Term limits are something that was decided by voters before. That is not something that we should look at circumventing through this process,” he said.

But others in the audience expressed their disagreement with term limits. Douglas Edwards said the other jurisdictions in the region don’t have term limits on their elected officials, which gives them an advantage.

“I am a community activist, not a politician, but I do understand the process,” Edwards said. He said policies such as term limits “have hampered Prince George’s County from moving forward with the rest of the region long enough. It’s time to take the shackles off of this county so it can compete with other jurisdictions.”

Dennis Brownlee of Mitchellville agreed.

“I take issue with the fact that anyone questions my ability to vote for who I want to, and the fact that if I don’t like my representation, that I should have the unalienable right to vote for who I want to at any time,” he said. “Why should that be limited?”

Floyd Wilson, a former council member who served for 17 years before term limits were instituted in the 1990s, also gave his opinion. He said when he served on the council, both at-large and district members were present, and it made it easier to accomplish his goals – like funding new amenities such as a recreation center for his constituents – when he could turn to at-large members for support.

“It was my experience that parochialism has a tendency to sneak its ugly head into the process when you are only representing one particular district. In my opinion, it helps to have other support coming from other districts. I think we’re more effective,” he said.

But other residents felt the council members should already be acting for the good of the county as a whole and not solely their specific district.

“What the council needs to do is look at what is good for the county and what can we afford to do for the county. Not ‘I need a park here, I need a facility here,’” Van Wiltenburg said.

Gloria Johnson of the Woodmore Civic Association said members who previously served in a district-based role would still harbor loyalty to their original district, which could disadvantage other districts if the measure was to become law.

“If at-large members previously sat as district representatives, would it not give those districts effectively more influence on county policies than other districts?” she asked.

Other residents instead thought the proposal would give less power to the districts and the council members elected to represent them.

“Another thing that bothers me a great deal is what I see as a betrayal of my representative that I voted for to represent my district,” said Jason Amster, a resident of District 3 for 24 years. “I did not vote for her to diminish her power, to dilute, going from 1/9th to 1/11th.”

Another recurring concern from residents was the high cost of running a county-wide election campaign, which would require the at-large members to accept large donations from special interest groups, who could then have influence with the members.

Sarah Cavitt of Fort Washington said, “The cost of a county-wide campaign is daunting. Where is the money going to come from? It’s not going to come from (Sen.) Bernie Sanders types of contributors, I can tell you that. It’ll come from special interest groups, and despite the 2011 law, there are so many loopholes that can be gotten through, it’s not going to matter,” she said.

She and other residents also pointed out the current financial situation of the county, saying the structural deficit it has already lead to cuts in areas such as schools and to the creation of the Blue Ribbon Commission by the council itself to study solutions. Many residents expressed concern about how the new members’ salaries and staffing costs would be paid.

“Property taxes were increased last year, and then you turn around and you want more money for bureaucracy,” said Holliday Wagner of Accokeek. “I think your timing is horrible. There are a lot of things going on in the county right now. There are a lot of other things that are more important in this moment.”

Council Chair Derrick Davis said the council will weigh the public’s comments as well as other factors, and vote on the proposal during the July 19 session.

If the bill passes with seven or more votes, it will be sent to the county board of elections to be formatted for inclusion on the November 8 general election ballot, where the public has the final say over whether or not to approve the additions.

Via Prince George’s county sentinel

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