MOVES ARE AFOOT to change the makeup of the county councils in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, but the two proposals go in opposite directions. At issue is whether at-large members are a good idea. Montgomery has four, along with five members elected from districts. The Montgomery County Civic Federation wants a vote in November to change the structure to nine district seats. It's a bad idea. In Prince George's, each of the nine council members is elected from a district. One member, Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), is proposing the addition of two at-large seats. Though we're not wedded to specific numbers, a mixture of at-large and district seats offers the best combination for both counties.

Members elected by district naturally tend to focus on the interests of their neighborhoods -- an important function that also can produce representation for minorities. But an all-district council can be too parochial. The local legislative body ought to have members who represent countywide interests when votes are cast. The Prince George's County Council could use such a change. Members of the Prince George's Board of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, are readying a petition for a November vote on a charter amendment to add two at-large members, one of whom would become the council's chairman.

At-large seats are a good idea, but in Mr. Hendershot's case, one with a catch: Because the county council has a term-limit law, Mr. Hendershot cannot run for reelection to his district seat in 2006. Two other council members, seeing his proposal for a charter change as little more than a way to extend his term, have proposed amendments that would keep Mr. Hendershot from running for an at-large seat in the '06 elections. As long as the restrictive term-limits law remains on the books, no member should be pushing a proposal that would circumvent that law for his own immediate political gain. Unless the voters have the good judgment to scrap the term limits and make their own decisions about who should stay on the council, the two current second-term incumbents' eligibility for an at-large seat should have to await a post-2006 election.