In what was dubbed the "Great Debate," two Montgomery County Council members traded polite jabs this week on a key issue facing voters on the November ballot: whether to scrap the four at-large council seats to try to limit developers' influence in county government.
Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) and council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) appeared evenly matched during their 90-minute encounter Monday to discuss Question C.
The referendum asks voters to decide whether to replace the system of four at-large and five district council members with nine district seats, each of which would represent about 110,000 residents.
Andrews represented supporters of the plan, which include the Montgomery County Civic Federation, a coalition of neighborhood groups that gathered about 15,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot, Common Cause/Maryland and former county executive Neal Potter (D). They say campaigns would be cheaper, thereby limiting the influence of big-money contributors, if all council members were elected by district.
Silverman represented the opponents of Question C, including a majority of council members, County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) and a variety of business, labor and community groups. The opponents, who have formed the Vote No Coalition, maintain that having at-large council members allows for broad thinking rather than parochialism, which they fear will occur in an all-district system.
During the debate, sponsored by the Civic Federation, Andrews and Silverman turned to history and the country's founding principles to make their points.
"Our goal should be to structure our County Council . . . as Abraham Lincoln said, 'of the people, by the people, for the people,' " Andrews said. "Right now, we are a council that is of developers, by developers and for developers."
Andrews said that it now takes about $200,000 to mount a credible countywide race. In the 2002 election, most successful at-large candidates received more than half of their contributions from the development community, Andrews said.
"How many people can raise that kind of money unless they are willing to have themselves financed by the development industry?" he asked.
Silverman compared the current system to the Founding Fathers' decision to create a U.S. House of Representatives and a Senate. "I believe . . . that in a large county, on the verge of 1 million people, we need to have representatives who understand the range of interests important to the people of Montgomery County," he said.
Without at-large council members, Silverman said, the council would not have had the foresight to launch a $1 billion redevelopment project for Silver Spring. Silverman backed up his argument by pointing to the squabbling, backroom deals and, as he put it, "logrolling" that has to occur for things to win approval in counties with all single member council districts.
"If you want to get a high school built in Largo, Maryland," Silverman said, referring to the Prince George's County Council, "you as the district representative, you better be prepared to vote for eight other high schools whether they are needed or not."
The two council members also sparred about which type of system gives minorities a better shot at election to the council.
Since the creation of the council in 1948, only one African American has been elected to an at-large seat.
"If this were Mississippi, you would be jumping up and down, saying how can you tolerate this system. . . . How do you defend a system that has produced one minority in a half-century?" Andrews asked.
But because the county's minority population is not concentrated in any one area, Silverman said, it would be nearly impossible to carve a council district where a majority of residents are non-white.
"The reality is, everyone running at-large has to spend time courting the minority vote spread throughout the county," Silverman said, noting that the NAACP opposes Question C.
The discussion did not slip into name-calling, and Silverman and Andrews appeared to be skilled debaters.
When Silverman suggested that an all-district council would cause more council members to vote for development in the county's agricultural preserve in the northern part of the county, Andrews replied that several projects have been approved under the current system.
"I think it is unfair to suggest the ag reserve could do any worse than it has under the current system," said Andrews, pointing to a new jail and the trash incinerator, both of which the council voted to put in the agricultural reserve.
The crowd cheered Andrews's remarks. Silverman then murmured, "Is this the point where I mention you voted for the jail?"