More than two dozen citizen activists voiced strong opposition Monday night to a measure that would add two new at-large seats on the Prince George’s County Council, arguing the costs outweigh the benefits to residents.
Lawmakers introduced the proposed charter amendment last month to increase the size of the council from nine to 11 members, two of whom would be elected countywide and represent the interests of the entire population.
Council Chair Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) said the change would discourage parochialism among the nine district representatives and allow experienced legislators more time in office so that they can help advance county interests regionally. Under the legislation, current term-limited council members would be eligible to run for the new positions in 2018.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III said Tuesday he is in favor of adding at-large seats because “they are good for government” and a concept his administration implemented when it restructured the school board to include appointed members.
“It will make government more effective,” he said. These members can “look at the county as a whole” to make decisions about projects that affect Prince George’s broadly, such as the FBI headquarters or the MGM casino without resorting to district-specific politicking, he said.
But at a public hearing in Upper Marlboro, the citizens in attendance were largely against the charter amendment because the cost to taxpayers would exceed $831,000 for the first year after the members are elected and more than $1 million starting in 2020.
Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County teachers union, said that she was initially intrigued by the idea but that the amount of money needed to fund the salaries of the new members and their staff members put her off.
“It is money that can be spent elsewhere,” she said, including on summer jobs for youths.
Barbara Sollner-Webb, president of the West Laurel Civic Association, said she is concerned about the “moneyed interests” that could influence at-large members who will need many more resources to run countywide.
Many of the opponents said the issue has been settled. Prince George’s County voters have rejected three different ballot initiatives to either extend or abolish term limits in the past two decades. To them, adding at-large seats is simply another attempt to circumvent the limits.
But supporters such as James R. Estepp, of the Greater Prince George’s Business Roundtable, said reverting to the county’s original 11-member structure of the 1970s, with a mix of at-large and district-based representatives, would make the county more competitive and aligned with neighboring jurisdictions.
The at-large member would “bring extensive perspective of what’s best for the county” at a time when the county is trying to grow economically and court greater opportunities for development in the region.
Zeno St. Cyr II, who spoke on behalf of two citizen groups from southern Prince George’s, said his members also oppose the bill as written but not the idea of at-large members. He suggested getting rid of two of the current nine districts and converting them into at-large seats. That would require redrawing the districts and maintaining the number of council seats to nine.
Using 2010 census numbers, St. Cyr estimated that the council member “for each of the seven new districts would serve a population base of just over 123,000 residents, instead of the current roughly 96,000 residents.”
Davis said the council will vote July 19 on whether to send the at-large member proposal and a second proposed charter amendment to the ballot this November.
The second bill would require the legislative and executive branches to seek outside counsel if a conflict ensues between them. Right now, either branch has that option but are not required to do so. Baker opposes the measure, saying it is costly and unnecessary.