LEST VOTERS in Montgomery and Prince George's counties be caught off-guard when they plow through their election options in November, they should know that in addition to candidate selections, important local governance questions will be on the ballots. At issue will be proposed changes in the makeup of the two county councils. But the proposals would take the two governments in opposite directions. In Montgomery, the changes would alter a council structure that doesn't need overhauling; in Prince George's, the proposals would improve the structure. The questions focus on the value of having at least some members elected at large.
It's a good idea. Four of the nine council members in Montgomery are elected at large and five from electoral districts. There's no particular magic in the numbers, but a blend makes sense. At-large members are accountable to every county resident. District members tend to reflect their closer-to-home constituencies, also important.
Members of the Montgomery County Civic Federation have submitted petitions in support of a proposed amendment to the county charter that would eliminate the at-large seats. Federation leaders argue that smaller districts would make it possible for candidates to run less expensive campaigns. True, and you could run even cheaper campaigns by electing a council of members from every neighborhood in the county. But how many of them would reach beyond parochial interests of their constituents to consider the bigger picture if it meant going against them? County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and other opponents of the proposal note that under the current system every county resident is represented by a majority of the nine members on the council, through his or her own district member and the four at-large members.
In Prince George's, a petition filed with the county Board of Elections would add two at-large members to the nine district seats, one of whom would become the council's chairman. One initial problem with the proposal has been addressed: Current council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), who first proposed the change, saw it as a way to circumvent term limits that prevent him from running for reelection in 2006. He would run then for one of the new at-large seats. But a separate proposal approved for the ballot would prohibit Mr. Hendershot from making such an end run in '06.
The voters, not term limits, should determine who goes or stays in office, and they should revisit this issue to get rid of these restrictions. But for now, at least, they can vote to extract Mr. Hendershot from the 2006 equation and still seize the moment this November to improve the structure of their council.