To opponents, Question H on the Prince George's ballot Tuesday could also be called the Hendershot Amendment.
That's because Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) is the lone member of the County Council who supports adding two at-large seats to the panel, whose nine current members each represents a district. The ballot issue would also award chairmanship of the council to the at-large candidate who receives the most votes. Currently, the council elects the chairman.
Opponents say that having at-large seats will increase the cost of running for the council, giving developers and real estate interests -- already important players in county politics -- even more influence.
But their biggest problem with Question H is Hendershot himself. The measure would not only add two seats, but also permit him to run for one. Hendershot is currently ineligible for reelection because of a limit of two four-year council terms, which voters approved in 1992. Opponents say he is merely trying to prolong his own political life.
"For a sitting council member to decide that he is beyond or above the voters' will, we look at that as an affront," said Arthur Turner Jr., a neighborhood activist and head of the Vote No on Question H Committee.
The opposition, which includes the rest of the County Council, has loaded Tuesday's ballot with issues that would effectively scuttle Question H in the event it passes. Question G would retain the council's power to select its chairman. Question F would maintain the current term limits; only Hendershot is at the end of his term limit.
Question I, which innocuously "establishes voting rights for at-large members," would actually prohibit any at-large member from being able to vote.
"They set up the ballot questions to deliberately confuse the constituents they say they care about," said Gloria Swieringa, Prince George's chairman of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which helped get Question H on the ballot. "As a resident of Prince George's, I can see no other reason for that, but they feel their power is being threatened."
Hendershot said the issues behind Question H are much bigger than his own political future. He said he has grown concerned about what he calls "creeping parochialism" on the current council, where serious discussion of countywide issues has become more difficult.
Question H supporters cite the emergence of a six-member voting bloc on the council, known as the "Gang of Six," which has pooled its influence on several issues. For two months last year, for example, it held up approval of a bailout plan by County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) for Prince George's Hospital Center. It had sought more of a role for the council in oversight of the hospital, which it eventually won. The group has also held up approval of some development projects until changes were made.
Members of the bloc say they are merely asserting their proper legislative roles and trying to be accountable to voters.
The petition drive to place Question H on the ballot was financed in large part by contributions from Prince George's developers Patrick Ricker and Kenneth Michael. Their funding enabled ACORN to gather the signatures.
"We got behind this effort because we saw it as pure ACORN territory," Swieringa said. A larger hybrid council of at-large and district seats would increase residents' voice in county government, she said.
Judy Robinson, who opposes Question H, said the measure is a "charade" designed to increase the influence of real estate interests.
"This is not a grass-roots effort. It is a move by the developers to take back their power over the council," said Robinson, who led the term-limits initiative.
Concern about developer influence was a main reason that county voters abandoned at-large seats nearly a quarter-century ago.
From 1971 until 1980, Prince George's had 11 council members elected countywide. But voters, reacting to Democratic Party slates heavily financed by real estate interests, cut the body to nine. The first district-based council was elected two years later. Each member represents about 90,000 residents.
Hendershot's arguments for at-large representation are not new.
A Charter Review Commission formed by then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) made the same recommendation, "to balance the overall interests of the county with the parochial interests of councilmanic districts."
It also suggested that the at-large council candidate who received the highest number of votes becomes the "president" of the council and that a district council member facing term limits would be eligible to serve a maximum of two consecutive terms on the County Council as an at-large member and vice versa.
None of the recommendations was acted on by the council.
Questions A through E, unrelated to the at-large question, would authorize the council to issue bonds to finance roads, libraries and other public facilities.