Councilmanic redistricting is among the most important issues facing Prince George's County this year. Last November, county voters decided that more needed to be changed in their county than political boundaries. The voters approved a ballot question the county council opposed. That question mandated reducing the number of council members from 11 to 9 and having each member elected by residents of his or her district only.
The possibility of a significant change of political power in 1982 sent the time-honored Democratic Party organization scrambling to ignore, thwart or change the will of the people until Question K finally passed. Voter approval of Question K marked the end of at- large elections for the county council, a process that had kept all but one challenger, Sue Mills, from its ranks.
The right to petition the government is an important right guaranteed by the First Amendment. The citizens' amendment was petitioned onto the ballot by collecting the signatures of 10,000 registered voters and presenting them to the county executive. The county council, on the other hand, is only required to have 8 of the possible 11 member votes to place an amendment on the ballot.
The council has fought the idea of Question K with all the weapons at its command. Council members tried to keep Question K off the ballot entirely by challenging the petitions. They tried to confuse the voters by putting similiar amendments on the ballot. They mailed batches of letters to constituents warning of its evils. Maneuvering, smoke screens and strong lobbying efforts were common as council members fought to save their political skins.
The critical issue before Prince George's citizens is whether the Question K charter amendment will cause parochialism and divisiveness or, as supporters of the change have argued, a more representative and fair form of local government. Supporters of Question K believe that election by single-member district will attract more new people into county politics and produce a council that is more directly accountable to local concerns.
Election by district will improve minority representation and will reduce the influence of special interests that have dominated at- large slates in the past.
Question K is law, but it appears the behind-the-scenes maneuvering continues. One council member admitted the council had some input before the Redistricting Commission made its recommendation. The council had packed the five-member commission with Democratic members they could count on to do their bidding, and it worked. The plan was unveiled at the 11th hour and approved by a 3-to-2 vote without any opportunity for a public hearing.
The redistricting proposal sent to the council is not designed to meet legal, ethical and public concerns. It has nothing to do with the issues raised by scores of citizens at a series of public hearings and work sessions of the commission.
The plan drafted by the commission had one goal: appeasing the incumbent county council. It has "safe" districts for the clique of incumbents who make up the council elite and jeopardizes those members on the outside. In adopting this plan, the commission has ignored its own guidelines and the legal requirements under the charter that council districts be compact, contiguous and as nearly equal in population as possible.
The plan has something to offend everyone. It offends women, who will probably lose representation on the council; blacks and south county residents, who will probably not be fairly represented; Greenbelt, which has been lumped with communities it shares nothing with; the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the ACLU--you name the group.
But most of all, the plan is offensive to anyone interested in good government. It was adopted in the wrong way, for the wrong reasons, and can't be changed before 1994.
But, regardless of its defects, the plan has the support of the half-dozen men and women who make up a majority of the county council and want above all else to hold on to their jobs.