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In Prince George’s, focus turns to who will fill new council seats

Seven-month-old Malachi Vines, of Mitchellville, Md., gets a voting sticker after his mother, first-time voter Angel Vines, 21, cast her vote. Residents of Prince George's County strongly backed a proposal to add two at-large seats to the council. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

There will be two more members on the Prince George’s County Council come January 2019, but it’s not clear who will be running for those seats.

More than two-thirds of Prince George’s County voters backed a ballot measure to expand the nine-member council by adding two at-large seats.

The new positions are seen as an opportunity for the council to have a broader, less parochial focus and for district lawmakers who are in the second of their two permitted terms to remain on the council if they run countywide.

“I’ve felt for a long time that you need to have people that have at-large interests in the county and not just in regards to their particular district,” said Bill Chesley, a developer who has projects in the county and contributed $15,000 to the pro-expansion effort.

“It’s a great county with a great future, and it has a lot going on,” he said.

There are currently five second-term council members: Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland), Mary Lehman (D-Laurel), Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) and Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro).

Harrison and Franklin campaigned in support of the council expansion at polling stations. Democratic Party insiders say both appear to be interested in the new seats.

Franklin said he has not made any decisions but was pleased that voters embraced the measure, which the council voted to place on the ballot.

“The idea of having a countywide perspective on the council resonated well with our residents,” Franklin said. “It’s not about any one person or candidate, but about what is the best system for the county going forward.”

Harrison was not available to comment.

Pr. George’s revives old debate about adding at-large seats to council

The passage of the ballot measure is the second major win for the council in recent years after it successfully limited a property tax increase County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) proposed in spring 2015.

Baker also supported the council expansion. Two years ago, both he and the council backed an effort to eliminate term limits for county elected officials, but the measure was easily defeated.

In this year’s election, about 66 percent of voters were in favor of the council expansion, which in theory would allow a lawmaker to serve a total of four consecutive four-year terms.

Several other large jurisdictions in the region, including Montgomery County and the District, have at-large members. In Fairfax County, the chair of the County Board of Supervisors is elected at-large.

In Prince George’s, politicians and activists were divided over whether to support the measure, which will cost more than $1.1 million annually in staff and salaries.

Different factions ended up distributing competing sample ballots advocating either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote.

Those in favor of the expansion included Council Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D-Mitchellville), who said having two at-large seats would be good for government.

“There are those who think tenure with regard to politics is a bad thing,” said Davis, who philosophically opposes term limits and has lobbied against them for years. “But in your workplace, you get better as you learn. So do we.”

In deep-blue Pr. George’s, a slew of sample ballots

Opponents of expanding the council are already vowing to collect signatures for a new ballot measure to be put before voters in a future election.

“Most people who learned about the issue rejected the ballot question,” said Larry Stafford of Progressive Prince George’s, a coalition of labor and community organizations.

In interviews at polling stations Tuesday, dozens of voters said they were unfamiliar with what change was being proposed.

“My conversations with voters showed they had not dug into the information,” said Davis, recalling how he tried to explain the question to one young woman. “But I can’t be culpable for the fact that you don’t seek information.”

Activists complained that their efforts to defeat the ballot measure were thwarted by the better-funded Recharge At-Large political committee, which was supported by Chesley and other developers.

“It was very hard to make an education pitch when someone is walking into a polling place and has just a few minutes,” said Suchitra Balachandran, who was one of a few dozen people campaigning against Question D at polling places across the county.

She said county officials should have held more community discussions on the proposal before Election Day.

Some of those opposed to the expansion said they may nevertheless try to take advantage of the new seats to bring new faces to the council.

“We will be running a slate of progressive candidates for council seats to create a progressive majority that actually want to look after the interests of residents and not their own self-interest,” Stafford said.

“We need a transformation of the county’s political class.”