Prince George's County voters will decide in November whether to create two new at-large seats on the County Council and allow voters -- rather than council members -- to elect the council's chairman.
The county Board of Elections yesterday verified 11,203 signatures on petitions calling for a ballot question that would amend the county charter.
"We're delighted," said the Rev. Gloria Swieringa, co-chairman of the Prince George's County Board of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which submitted the petitions to the board last month. "The people's voice should be heard."
Swieringa said the group will continue its effort, which began in May, to educate voters about the benefits of adding two at-large seats to the county's nine-member district system. She argued that the current council is overly parochial and that additional representation would give residents a greater voice over countywide issues.
Opponents of creating the at-large seats said they are worried about who is working behind the scenes to influence the changes. Swieringa's group was criticized last month when it was revealed that the petition drive is largely being funded by developers with significant influence in Prince George's politics.
Over the past four months, the group has received $50,000 to pay for its campaign. More than half of that came from corporations tied to Patrick Ricker and Kenneth Michael, two real estate brokers who, opponents say, want to keep Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) on the council.
Hendershot is prohibited from running for his district seat again because of a voter-imposed two-term limit. He began floating the idea of restructuring the council this year.
Judy Robinson, who led the movement to change the charter in 1992 to limit the county executive and council members to two successive four-year terms, said creating at-large seats undermines the limit on terms.
"I'm confident that the voters are going to see through this charade," Robinson said. "This is not a grass-roots effort; it is a move by the developers to take back their power over the council."
She said she will work with other members of the council to defeat the effort.
The council, hoping to negate the intentions of Hendershot, decided last month to add two charter amendments of its own to the ballot, in case the petition drive was successful.
One would make Hendershot ineligible for an at-large seat; the other would retain the council's power to select its chairman.