A bill allowing Montgomery County Council members to be elected by district rather than at large, as is done now, appeared headed for defeat this week after several citizen groups told the county's Senate delegation they would prefer no bill to the one proposed.
The bill, hammered out after months of negotiation among members of the county's House delegations, sets up a complicated process by which voters would choose how to elect the county's seven-member council.
Following a public hearing Monday night, however, most of the county's seven-member Senate delegation seemed ready to reject the House proposal and send back to the House delegation the original bill, which asked voters to decide only whether they wanted council elections by district. It did not include, as the final House version does, complicated guidelines for setting up a commission to propose election changes. Del. Judith C. Toth, the bill's main sponsor, said going back to the original measure would mean "certain death for the bill."
Members of the House Delegation have warned that if the Senate passes any bill other than theirs, they would defeat the measure.
Citizen groups, historically the strongest supporters of the concept of election by district, ignored the House's warnings and told the Senate delegation during the public hearing to either return to the original version of the bill or kill the House version. The broad range of citizen groups charged that the latest House proposal was a "political mockery" and was a clever trick approved under the "guise of compromise" by members of the delegation that opposed the concept.
The groups, ranging from the liberal Alliance for Democratic Reform to the conservative Montgomery County Taxpayers' League, told the senators that if they approved the House bill the groups would work actively to defeat it, and would try to place their own charter amendment on the 1982 ballot.
Although a charter amendment would not be constitutional--a change in the state constitution would be needed for any alteration in county election laws--a spokesperson for the Coalition for Representative Government said the group planned to go ahead with the petition drive to prove to the legislators the "overwhelming" support Montgomery County citizens have expressed for their measure. The charter amendment would increase the number of council members from seven to nine and elect five members by district and four at large.
All seven members of the council presently are elected at large, but five members must live in specific districts. Under the House proposal, in the 1982 election voters throughout the state would be asked whether they wanted to change the state constitution to add Montgomery County to the list of localities allowed to have council elections by district. If approved, Montgomery County voters would be asked in the 1984 primary to decide whether they wanted council elections by district. At the same time, voters would be asked to approve a list of members of a charter review commission set up by the County Council and county executive. The commission would propose how the election by district should be run. In the general election, voters then would be asked to approve the commission's recommendation or any other election proposal on the ballot.
If more than one proposal were on the ballot, a voter could vote on all measures. For a proposal to go into effect, however, only one proposal could have more affirmative votes than negative votes. If more than one measure gained approval of voters, all would lose. It is this feature that has caused much of the opposition among the citizen groups. They claim that more than one measure could easily win, postponing any decision until the 1988 election, where the same problem could recur. Under Toth's bill, if that happens, voters would not consider the measure after 1990. "There is no denying that it is a convoluted amendment," Toth told the senators, "but it is a compromise and we gave our word. There is no going back to the original bill."
Senate delegation chairman Victor Crawford, however, said that it was clear the senators were not going to approve the House version.
"All the people who have worked actively to support election by district oppose this bill," Crawford said in an interview. "It is clear that the House bill is unsatisfactory."
In other action, the Senate delegation approved a bill prohibiting drinking in shopping center parking lots without written permission of the owner. The bill, introduced by Del. Idamae Garrot and passed by the House delegation, now goes to the floor for a vote.