The Prince George's County Council voted yesterday to drop a controversial referendum question from the 1980 ballot that would have reduced the council's size from 11 to nine members and forced them to run only from districts.
The council made its 8-to-3 decision after an attorney for the county elections board reported that petitions used to collect the 10,000 signatures necessary to get the question on the ballot had not been notarized as the state constitution requires.
The referendum question had been proposed by a group of Republicans, including County Executive Lawrence Hogan, as well as several maverick democrats who in past years have been at odds with the party leadership.
The group proposed the ballot question, its members have said, to make the council "more responsive" to county voters, but it was also intended as a slap at the Democratic Party's traditional election year slatemaking efforts, which in the past excluded many of those who have pushed the referendum question.
The council is now composed of 11 Democrats, and all but one of them were members of the party's 1978 slate.
Under current law, for the 1982 county elections, there will be 11 council seats, six of which would be filled by candidates running at-large with countywide constituencies. The remaining five would be elected in individual districts only.
Council members and other party members have attacked the referendum question in the past, charging that it would create parochialism on the council that would harm the voters.
In addition several council members, including the two black representatives who were both elected at large in 1978, charged that the question if adopted by the voters would reduce the chances of blacks on the council, because most blacks live in one area of the county.
In an effort to counteract the referendum question, the council voted last month to place two other questions on the ballot that deal with council size. One would reduce it to nine while keeping five at-large districts. The other would keep 11 council seats but with some slight changes from the current law.
Advocates of the referendum question, who spent most of the summer collecting the petitions at issue, attacked the council yesterday and said they would challenge the decision in court today.
"it was a last-ditch desperate attempt to keep the question off the ballot," said Democratic State Del. Timothy Maloney, one of the question's originators. He accused the council of relying on a "phony legal technicality to thwart the will of the people who signed petitions."
Maloney said the council had allowed past ballot questions -- such as the tax-limiting TRIM proposal in 1978 -- to get on the ballot without the petitions being notarized and was simply "getting technical" to try to get rid of proposal that would reduce council seats.
Council member Gerard McDonough, who has repeatedly spoken against a council without at-large members, said yesterday that he and the seven other council members voted to drop the referendum question after consultation with the election board's attorney.
"Single-member districts are heinous to me," he said. "My district would suffer. When the attorney indicated there was a problem, that was enough for me," he said, to vote to drop the referendum from the ballot.
Reducing the council to nine members was not a factor in the council vote, he said, since a proposal to reduce the size of the council appear on the ballot anyway.