ACORN and Patrick Ricker are not what you would call natural allies.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform bills itself as the nation's largest advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families. Ricker has gotten rich brokering big real estate deals in Prince George's County, such as the development near the Greenbelt Metro station.
Yet the two have found common cause in a campaign to add two at-large seats to the nine-member Prince George's County Council. ACORN has received $50,000 over the past four months, largely from Ricker and other developers with significant influence in Prince George's politics.
Ricker tops the list with $15,000 in contributions. Kenneth Michael of the Michael Cos. has given a total of $12,000.
ACORN members said that adding two at-large members -- and allowing voters to select the council chairman, the other part of the proposed amendment -- would give voters more voice. District members are overly parochial, they said, and at-large representatives would be better equipped to focus on larger issues such as health care and housing.
Ricker said he just wants better representation on the council. "I live in this county, and I think the voters should be able to decide whether there should be two additional seats," he said.
But opponents of the drive say Ricker and the other developers are looking to keep Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) on the council. Hendershot is known on the council by the nickname "Text Amendment Tom" for his bills to rezone land and speed up approval of development projects.
Prohibited from running for his district seat again because of a voter-imposed two-term limit, Hendershot began shopping the idea of restructuring the council this year.
ACORN, which began collecting signatures about three months ago, has spent about $37,000 of the $50,000, according to recent financial reports. Some of it went to pay workers 50 cents to $1 for each signature.
Gloria Swieringa, co-chairman of the Prince George's County Board of ACORN, said there is no inherent contradiction in the collaboration with Ricker and other builders.
ACORN is "not going to turn down anybody's money" to help finance its causes, she said. She added that it has been able to register voters as it collected signatures for the petition.
"Show us a way to empower people, and we'll take it," Swieringa said. "We don't own stocks and we don't own oil wells. All we are about is improving the quality of life for the low to moderate income."
Some county politicians said the collaboration, which came to light after a council hearing on charter amendments yesterday, served to confirm their suspicions.
"I always had the belief that this was not an ACORN drive," said council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel). "When you look at that list, you see that it's not the people rising up demanding democracy. It's an outside force."
Judy Robinson, who led the charter-change effort in 1992 to limit the county executive and council to two successive four-year terms, said yesterday that she was not surprised to learn that developers were footing the bill to help Hendershot stay on the council.
Robinson said real estate interests spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to oppose the 1992 effort.
"This is the way the development community has worked in this county," Robinson said. "They don't have the guts to come out front to say we want to remove the term limits. They are behind the scenes, and that's the reason why we pushed for term limits to begin with, because of their influence over the process. "
ACORN submitted a petition this week to get the charter amendment on the November ballot. The County Council, meanwhile, will decide Friday whether to place two charter amendments of its own on the ballot, both designed to negate the objectives of ACORN and the builders. One would make Hendershot ineligible to run for an at-large seat; the other would retain the council's power to select a chairman.
In Montgomery County yesterday, the County Council agreed to put three proposed charter amendments on the November ballot -- but not before taking steps to reduce their chances of approval.
The council approved two measures from Robin Ficker, a Republican anti-tax advocate, that would establish term limits and eliminate the council's ability to override a property tax cap. It provisionally approved a proposal from the Montgomery County Civic Federation to do away with at-large council positions, pending submission of signatures by a deadline early next month.
Dan Wilhelm, president of the federation, said yesterday that the group had gathered more than the required 10,000 signatures and would turn them in by the weekend.
The council also changed two of the amendment summaries that will appear on the ballot, a move some members said will clarify the effect of the measures.
The move alters the language presented to voters without changing the effect of the amendments if they pass. But proponents said the changes are unfair and possibly illegal.
"I'm disappointed that they felt they had to resort to these shenanigans," said Dale Tibbitts, chair of the electoral reform task force of the federation, which is petitioning to do away with at-large seats and create nine districts. "They are trying to make it so confusing that folks will vote against it."
Ficker said he will consider challenging the changes in court.
Some council members agreed that the language changes amounted to editorializing on the ballot.
"This feels more like advocacy than just presenting the facts," said council member Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring). "I think we can defeat [a proposed charter amendment] on the merits."
The council also decided not to place on the ballot two measures recommended by the Charter Review Commission. The first would have defined council members as full-time employees, paving the way for a possible raise. The second was a largely technical amendment affecting the veto process.
Silverman said the council will join with County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who also opposes the three amendments headed for the ballot, to build a coalition to defeat the measures. Eliminating the two other issues will make it easier to communicate to voters in November, he said.
"The message should be clear: 'Just say no,' " he said.