Voters in Prince George's County last night resoundingly defeated an initiative that would have altered the size of the County Council, eased the term limits they imposed on county lawmakers a dozen years ago and allowed them -- not council members -- to elect the council chairman.
With more than a majority of precincts reporting, voters rejected Question H, which would have added two at-large seats to the nine-member, district-based council and allowed a council member who is prohibited from running again for his district seat to run for one of the at-large positions.
Arthur Turner, chairman of the "Vote No on Question H" campaign, said the measure was a thinly veiled attempt to circumvent a 1992 charter change that limited the county executive and council members to two four-year terms.
"When people learned that it was to overturn term limits, they were against it," said Turner, a community activist who was joined by a majority of the council and other elected officials in opposing the measure.
The results mirrored the vote 12 years ago to change the charter, when voters overwhelmingly imposed the term restrictions.
Voters also were asked to fill a vacant council seat and elect three judges to the Circuit Court.
Much of the local political activity has centered on Question H.
Members of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families and union members, pushed to change the county charter to increase the size of the council, while various civic groups and elected officials fought to keep the current nine-member, district-based council in place.
Brenda Ellis, treasurer of the ACORN chapter and the "Yes on Question H" campaign, said she was pleased that a third of the voters supported the effort.
"We came against the power structure and . . . not only a third of the voters believed what we were saying, they agreed with us," Ellis said.
In the council election, Will Campos, a Democrat, toppled Tommy S. Priestley, a Republican, in a race to fill the seat vacated by former County Council member Peter A. Shapiro (D-Brentwood). Shapiro, who couldn't run for reelection because of term limits, resigned midway through his second term to take a position at the University of Maryland.
Campos, an aide to County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), picked up his party's nomination during a special primary election in September with more than a third of the vote. Priestley, a college student, ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
The three judges running for seats in Maryland's 7th Circuit, which includes Calvert, Charles, Prince George's and St. Mary's counties, ran unopposed. They were Graydon S. McKee III, who has served on the bench for 17 years; William D. Missouri, the circuit administrative judge; and Cathy Hollenberg Serrette, who became a judge in December.
On other ballot questions, voters authorized the council to issue bonds to finance roads, libraries and other public facilities.
On Question H, ACORN collected more than 20,000 signatures to propose the change to the charter.
Opponents, who organized a "Vote No on Question H" campaign, argued that the initiative was the work of developers, who helped bankroll the petition drive.
Council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton), the only council member who supported Question H, encouraged some developers to support the plan to add at-large seats to the council. Kenneth Michael and Patrick Ricker together gave ACORN more than half of the $50,000 it raised to fund the petition drive.
When the majority of council members learned of the plan to expand the panel, they began exploring ways to keep the current structure of the nine-member panel in place.
The council voted to add three questions of its own to the ballot. Each one was designed to curtail the influence of the at-large positions, in the event voters approved the Question H amendment.
Supporters of Question H say the opposition from the majority of the council is only because the six-member voting bloc, known as the "Gang of Six," is threatened.
The Gang of Six, which took form this year, has pooled its influence on several issues. For two months this year, for example, it held up approval of a bailout plan by Johnson for Prince George's Hospital Center. It had sought more of a role for the council in oversight of the hospital, which it eventually won. The group also delayed approval of some development projects until changes were made.
The makeup of the council has been a contentious issue. In 1980, the body was composed of six at-large and five district members. Voters amended the charter that year to eliminate the at-large seats and establish the current nine-member district system.
The change was driven by residents who wanted to get rid of what was seen as the Democratic Party machine's domination of the council and to discourage candidates from running countywide. African Americans, emerging as the majority in the county, also saw it as a way to increase representation on the council.