The Montgomery and Prince George's county councils will consider a series of possible charter amendments this month for the November ballot that could significantly change their makeup and the way they do business.
In Montgomery, the measures would establish term limits, eliminate at-large council positions, do away with the council's power to override a property tax cap and pave the way for a possible pay increase. Prince George's is considering an amendment to add at-large positions on its council.
The Montgomery council is composed of four at-large members who run countywide and five who represent individual districts. The Montgomery County Civic Federation, a nonpartisan group made up mainly of neighborhood civic associations, is petitioning to scrap the at-large seats and create nine districts.
Proponents argue that the change would reduce the influence of special interest money in local politics. Federation officials say the cost of running for an at-large seat in Montgomery can exceed $200,000, but a candidate for a district seat spends about $50,000.
"With smaller community districts, money is not always the most important factor," said Dale Tibbitts, chairman of the federation's electoral reform task force. "You can develop a grass-roots organization, attend more community functions and really meet people."
Federation officials say they have collected more than 5,000 of the 10,000 signatures needed to get the amendment on the ballot and expect to gather the rest before an early-August deadline. If they do, the council might propose a compromise.
Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) said members might consider a measure to reduce, rather than eliminate, at-large representation.
"There is an interest on the part of a majority of the council to continue with some level of at-large seats," he said. "It's an item we won't take up, frankly, unless we have to."
Opponents, including County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), say the current system ensures that every citizen is represented by a majority of the nine members on the council, through their own district and four at-large members. Eliminating at-large seats, they say, would prevent members from looking out for the best interests of the entire county.
"It will lead to unnecessary parochialism and political gamesmanship," said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large).
In Prince George's, there is a movement to take the council in the other direction -- adding two at-large seats to the nine-member panel. The proposed amendment also would allow voters, rather than council members, to choose the council chairman.
Dionne Walsh, chairman of the Prince George's County Board of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which supports the measure and is gathering signatures, said her group seeks to give voters more power.
"This is about taking the board back," Walsh said. She and other backers say that the council is too parochial and that the two at-large members would be accountable to the entire county, not just one area.
As in Montgomery, members of the Prince George's County Council are prepared to resist any significant change. They responded to the petition drive with three charter amendments of their own that would blunt the impact of the at-large measure. One would maintain the council's power to select a chairman.
Council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) introduced another revision that would make any new at-large members nonvoting members of the council. County attorneys are reviewing whether the idea is constitutional.
Another measure would make any member of the council elected in 2002 ineligible to run for an at-large seat in 2006. This would effectively bar the originator of the petition drive, council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), from running for one of the seats. It was introduced by council member Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville).
Dean said he sees Hendershot's push for the at-large seat as a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent a 1992 charter change that limits the county executive and council to two successive four-year terms. Hendershot is in the middle of his final term.
The composition of the council has been a contentious issue in Prince George's. In 1982, the body was composed of six at-large and five district members.
Voters amended the charter that year to eliminate the at-large seats and establish the current nine-member district system.
The revision was driven by residents who wanted to get rid of what was seen as the Democratic Party machine's domination of the council and to discourage candidates from running on a countywide slate. African Americans, emerging as the majority in the county, saw it as a way to increase representation on the council.
In the late 1980s, a group of black elected officials, led by then-state Sen. Albert R. Wynn (D), pushed for voters to elect the council chairman and four at-large members in an attempt to move power away from the county executive. The effort failed to get on the ballot.
In light of history in Prince George's, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, the impetus for the at-large seats could, at least in part, be race.
"There could be a lack of confidence that whites are being represented in the county," he said. Hendershot, one of three white members of the council, said the issue is maintaining continuity and institutional memory.
Several other proposed amendments would move Montgomery's structure closer to that of its neighbor to the east.
Robin Ficker, a former Republican state legislator, has gathered enough signatures for an amendment to strengthen an existing tax cap.
In 1990, voters approved a council-sponsored amendment limiting increases in property tax receipts to roughly the rate of inflation. But the charter allows seven of the nine council members to override the cap.
For the past three years, the council has exercised the override, last year taking in $37 million more than the limit allows.
"They simply can't control their spending," Ficker said.
In May, the council's attorney, Michael Faden, raised questions about the legality of Ficker's drive, saying the wording of the petition form was not sufficiently clear.
The council could decline to certify the proposed amendment if council members found the petition to be illegal, but Silverman said that is unlikely.
Opponents say the measure would eliminate the council's ability to respond to changing economic conditions and force cuts in county services.
"He's bound and determined to ruin the quality of our schools, ruin the quality of our police departments, ruin the quality of all our services," Duncan said of Ficker.
Prince George's has had a property tax cap since 1978, when voters enacted it by referendum.
Former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D) tried to roll back the cap, known as TRIM (Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders), through a 1996 referendum, but 63 percent of the county's voters opposed repeal. Many opponents say the cap has impeded the county's progress, especially in the quality of its schools.
Ficker also has gathered enough signatures for a measure to limit council members and the county executive to three four-year terms.
Prince George's voters imposed a two-term limit on the county executive and members of the council in 1992. County politicians, including Hendershot, tried to repeal the measure in 2000, but voters kept it in place by a 2 to 1 margin.
That year, 54 percent of Montgomery voters opposed a two-term limit sponsored by Ficker. Had it passed, Duncan and five incumbent council members would have been ineligible to run for office in 2002.
At the time, Duncan said he supported a limit of three terms. Now he opposes limits altogether.
"I think term limits aren't good for our community," he said. "In Prince George's, we've seen a lot of turnover. It's a problem if you don't have that sort of expertise and the knowledge."
If the amendment passes, the term-limit restriction would prevent council members Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) and Duncan from seeking reelection in 2006.
The Montgomery council also will decide this month whether to place on the ballot two measures recommended by the Charter Review Commission.
The first, opposed by Duncan and Ficker, would define council members as full-time employees, paving the way for a possible pay increase.
The other, which Duncan does not oppose, would require the county executive to return vetoed bills to the council within 10 days, rather than the current 13.
"I don't think anyone has a problem with that," he said.