Several citizens groups urged the Montgomery County Council last night to allow residents to vote in November on a proposal that would add two members to the council and require some members to be elected from districts rather than running at large as they do now.
The council now has seven members; all run at large, but five must live in separate residential districts. The proposal to expand the council to nine members would keep the existing districts, but candidates for those seats would be elected only by the voters in those districts. Candidates for the four other seats would run at large. The revision was recommended by the county's Charter Review Commission earlier this month.
The County Council can accept, reject or modify the proposal. If it approves any version of the commission's plan, it will be put to referendum on the November general election ballot.
The redistricting plan drew both support and opposition at last night's hearing before the council.
Those in favor say it would give residents the clout of voting for the majority of five on the council while preserving the right to a specific representative from their general neighborhood. It also would give the growing but more sparsely populated upper reaches of Montgomery a stronger voice on the County Council, the proponents argue.
"We want a representative whose main job would be understanding and articulating our concerns," said written testimony submitted by Tim O'Shea, a member of the Committee for the Upcounty, at the hearing attended by about 40 citizens. The proposal "also achieves the important democratic goal of opening up the political process by reducing campaign costs for the district candidates," he said.
Opponents of redistricting say the Montgomery system is working fine and is a model of good government.
They maintain that in a system where council members represent districts rather than the entire county, government is slowed by a focus on parochial issues.
"The at-large system has tended to minimize parochialism and logrolling among the council members, to hold at bay the special interests and to thwart attempts by single-issue groups to intimidate the council into pandering to their self-serving goals," said Roscoe R. Nix, president of the Montgomery NAACP.
Nix said the proposal would make it more difficult for minorities to get elected because "it is simply impossible in terms of the demographics of the county to construct a council district which would be predominantly or even significantly black."
A change in council election methods has been debated for more than a decade. A 1984 referendum to amend the county charter and elect five council members by district and two at-large was defeated after heavy lobbying by the county Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters.
Several officials, including County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, spoke out against two charter amendments proposed by Planning Board Chairman Norman L. Christeller, calling for repeal of two state laws that will increase the power of future county executives in planning matters.