An Oct. 28 Montgomery Extra article incorrectly said that the Montgomery County Civic Federation campaigned against County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's "End Gridlock" slate in 2002. The federation took no position in that campaign. (Published 10/30/04)
Montgomery County residents will not vote for County Council members this year, but they will decide three ballot questions that could greatly alter who is on the council and how it operates.
Voters must decide whether to amend the county charter to impose term limits on the council and the county executive, scrap at-large council districts and eliminate the council's ability to override a property tax cap.
If all three measures are approved, the combination of all single-member districts and term limits will be the most sweeping overhaul of county government since the position of county executive was created in 1970.
Council members Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), elected in 1990, and Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), elected in 1986, will not be able to run for reelection in two years if term limits are approved. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) would also be barred from seeking another term in 2006. The measure, called Question B, would limit council members and the county executive to three four year-terms.
Question C seeks to replace the at-large council seats with nine single-member districts, each of which would represent about 110,000 residents. Currently, four council members run at large, and five are elected from districts.
If approved by voters, the change means council President Steven A. Silverman (D) and members Nancy Floreen (D), George L. Leventhal (D) and Subin, all elected at large, will have to not run in 2006 or campaign for reelection in new, smaller districts against opponents who may have closer ties to the community.
Question A asks voters whether they want to remove the council's ability to override a property tax cap. Approved by voters in 1990, the cap restricts yearly increases in the amount of revenue the county can collect from property taxes to roughly the rate of inflation.
Seven of nine council members now can override those limits. Faced with declining state aid and a sputtering economy, the council voted to override the cap for the past three consecutive years.
Its decision angered Robin Ficker, an anti-tax activist considered by many elected officials to be a gadfly. He gathered enough petitions to put property tax and term limits issues on the ballot. The Montgomery County Republican Central Committee supports Question A, saying it is necessary to rein in government spending. But the GOP took no position on Ficker's term-limits measure.
The Montgomery County Civic Federation, which led the unsuccessful effort two years ago to defeat Duncan's "End Gridlock" slate in the council races, is the force behind getting Question C on the ballot.
The civic federation says an all-district council would limit developers' influence in county elections by eliminating expensive countywide campaigns.
In addition to the civic federation, which is a coalition of community organizations, Measure C is supported by the Sierra Club, Audubon Naturalist Society, Common Cause Maryland, the Libertarian and Green parties of Montgomery County and the Maryland Taxpayers League.
Neal Potter, who served six terms on the County Council and one term as county executive (1990-94), and council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) have also endorsed the proposal.
Although the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee has taken no position on Question C, the Men's Republican Club is urging its members to vote for it.
A formidable coalition of nearly two dozen organizations, some of which are usually at odds with each other, has formed to defeat all three ballot questions.
The Vote No Coalition includes such county organizations as the Democratic Central Committee, Chamber of Commerce, NAACP, Arts and Humanities Council, League of Women Voters, Mental Health Association, Jewish Community Relations Council and organized labor, Progressive Maryland and Casa of Maryland.
Most elected leaders, including Duncan, eight council members, State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D), Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and a majority of the legislative delegation, are also campaigning against all three ballot questions.
Although Andrews supports Question C, he strongly opposes the amendments promoted by Ficker.
The broad coalition aligning against the measures highlights elected officials' nervousness over how voters will react to them on Election Day.
Montgomery voters have rejected several past efforts by Ficker, a lawyer and former state delegate, to amend the county charter, including measures dealing with tax caps and term limits. But with turnout predicted to approach 80 percent, opponents are worried that neophyte voters will hastily decide to support the questions.
"We think with this national election being such . . . this could accidentally happen," said Rebecca R. Wagner, co-chairman of the Vote No Coalition and executive director of Community Ministry of Montgomery County, an interfaith group that represents 129 congregations.
To defeat the measures, the coalition leaders have been raising money to get their message out to voters through mailers and other forms of advertising.
The coalition is campaigning against Question A and B by referring to them as "Ficker follies," a refrain they hope will resonate with voters who rejected past Ficker efforts.
When addressing specifically Question A, the Vote No Coalition says a cap on the property tax rate would lead to major cuts in government services and threaten the high quality of life Montgomery County residents have come to expect.
"We know if Question A passes, services to the poor, vulnerable and the sick will be cut," Leventhal said.
Ficker, who notes the county budget has doubled in the past six years, has been trying to generate support for Question A by posting green and white "You're Entering a High Tax Zone.org" signs across the county.
"When the voters approved this limit, they thought it would be abided by except in emergencies, and to the council every year is an emergency," Ficker said. "They never plan to stick to it again."
The debate over Question C has largely centered on whether an all-district council would limit the influence of developers' campaign donations in local elections and lead to more minorities being elected to the council. 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 can spend about $50,000.
Question C opponents counter that an all-district council would increase parochialism. They point to infighting and deal making on the Prince George's County and Baltimore City councils.