AMID THE WELTER of sinuously worded ballot questions, bond proposals and political races facing Washington area voters on Nov. 2, a handful deserve special scrutiny for their potential to remake the way local government does business -- and not necessarily for the better. Three questions on Montgomery County's ballot are a case in point, and voters should vote "no" on all three.
Question A would force the county council to freeze property tax receipts (allowing only for inflation and new construction), thereby imposing caps on projected spending. Question B would limit council members, as well as the county executive, to three consecutive four-year terms in office. And Question C would change the makeup of the county council itself -- currently five members elected from districts and four elected at-large -- to all nine members elected from districts.
The three questions are helpfully arranged in descending order of recklessness. Question A, if approved, would use tax caps to straitjacket council members and would inevitably result in painful cuts in planned spending, including for Montgomery's excellent schools. Many Montgomery residents are stunned by soaring assessments on their homes, and there may be legitimate concerns that county spending is undisciplined. But county law already contains safeguards; for county spending to exceed the rate of inflation, seven of nine council members have to vote in favor. The imposition of binding caps on spending is a blunt instrument and a poor substitute for electing responsible candidates to the county council.
Similarly, Question B's term-limits proposal would deprive voters of discretion, in this case to elect some candidates of their choosing. We're all for new faces and ideas, but local government also benefits from veteran public servants with experience. It's fine to throw the rascals out -- but there are usually some officeholders worth keeping.
Question C, which would eliminate the council's four at-large members and replace them with district representatives, is rooted partly in the notion that it has become so pricey to run for office countywide -- $100,000 seems to be the bare minimum, and $200,000 may soon be the norm -- that only candidates financed by deep-pocketed developers can afford to do so. We share the concern but reject this proposed solution. The best arrangement remains a mix of district and at-large representation -- the one to reflect more parochial interests, the other to take a broader view.
That is also our view in Prince George's County, whose nine council members are currently elected exclusively from districts. One member, Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), proposed Question H to add two at-large seats. We support the idea and urge a "yes" vote on Question H -- as well as on the related Question F, which would allow a district council member who has maxed out under Prince George County's two-term limit to run again for an at-large seat. But we note with unease that Mr. Hendershot is not exactly a disinterested party; facing the expiration of his term in office in 2006 under Prince George's County's restrictive term-limit law, Mr. Hendershot himself may be the likely beneficiary if Question H is approved.
In Prince George's we recommend a "yes" vote on ballot Questions A, B, C, D, and E, all of which would authorize the county to borrow money by issuing bonds to pay for roads, libraries, public buildings (including for the fire department) and community college facilities.