FIVE YEARS AGO, term limits produced a sea change in the leadership of Prince George's County. Experience was out, new talent was in for county council elections. But as time and terms went by, the limitations of limits began to sink in. Last year, new faces were at a premium on the November ballot as incumbents faced minimal challenges in the primaries. Again, that was how the voters had planned it. Now, however, people are having second-term second thoughts: Unless amended, the two-term limit will automatically oust seven of the nine council members in 2002.

Unlike members of Congress -- who sing the praises of limits, vow to hang it up after so many terms and then beg themselves to stay on -- these county council members have no just-kidding option. To avoid mass departures every other election, council member Thomas R. Hendershot is petitioning to stagger council term limits. Fine, say some, but during the transition to a new schedule, who would have to go when -- and who would get an extension?

Mr. Hendershot's petition names three districts -- pulled out of a hat, he insists -- that would remain subject to departures in 2002: the 4th (Audrey Scott), 5th (Marvin F. Wilson) and 7th (Dorothy F. Bailey). "Very amusing," said an unsmiling Ms. Scott, who happens to be the lone Republican officeholder. Ms. Bailey, who like Ms. Scott is willing to abide by the voters' original limits, said she's curious about the randomness of Mr. Hendershot's timetable and the lack of public participation in its consideration.

The petition allows other members longer than two terms and, for future members, three-term limits. If still in office, the two members who would be forced out last, in 2010, would be Peter Shapiro and -- that's right -- Mr. Hendershot. If 10,000 voters sign the petition by August 2000 and the county executive approves placing it on the ballot, voters would decide the following November.

The simplest, most direct way to address term limits is to leave all scheduling to the voters. Let them choose who's worthy of retention and who should go. Now that voters have seen the shortcomings of their self-imposed restrictions, they might strike a blow for their freedom by throwing out statutory term limits altogether.