Correction: Earlier versions of this story misidentified Prince George’s County Council member Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) as president of the Maryland Association of Counties. Turner is a past president of the group and currently serves on its board.
The Prince George’s County Council is weighing whether to ask voters to change a law limiting elected officials to two consecutive terms in office, a restriction that is unique in the Washington metro area and reflects an anti-incumbent sentiment that county officials believe has started to wane.
A commission is recommending a referendum measure that would allow the county executive and members of the council to serve up to three consecutive terms — an option it believes might be more palatable to voters than eliminating term limits altogether.
Opponents of term limits say that they deny voters the opportunity to reelect politicians they like; create an experience void in county government by pushing out knowledgeable lawmakers; and disrupt the legislative process.
And in Prince George’s, with development booming, historic reductions in the crime rate and government corruption a fading memory, politicians are hoping that an increasingly content electorate will want them to stick around a little longer.
“Prince George’s has changed,” said County Council Chairman Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). “And there are indications people are satisfied with the way things are headed.”
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) is “interested in allowing people to make their own decisions about whether their elected leaders are effective or not,” said spokesman Barry Hudson. “Why should voters have to say goodbye to leaders they like just because their time is up?”
But those who favor term limits say they are still needed to prevent incumbents from becoming entrenched and beholden to those who finance their campaigns.
“We had people on our council who had been there 20 years and were bought out by developers,” said Judy Robinson, an activist from Hyattsville who led the successful 1992 referendum effort to impose term limits. “The president is limited. The governor is limited. What makes our county council so important that they can’t be limited?”
The council must decide by the end of July whether to put term limits on the ballot in November. It could endorse the commission’s recommendation to extend the limit to three terms, propose repealing term limits or decline to have a referendum this year.
The U.S. president and the governor of Maryland are prohibited from serving more than two consecutive terms; the governor of Virginia can serve one term.
St. Mary’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties in Maryland limit the number of terms their politicians can serve. But in the immediate Washington area, only Prince George’s has term limits. The D.C. Council overturned a nonbinding voter referendum to impose them in 2001.
Voters in Prince George’s instituted term limits in a 1992 referendum that echoed growing national resentment of elected leaders. They reaffirmed their position in 2000, rejecting a well-financed effort to repeal the law.
The issue resurfaced this spring as part of a periodic review of the county charter by a seven-member citizens commission chaired by retired judge William D. Missouri. The council and the county executive each appoint three members to the commission and jointly agree on a seventh.
“Term limits really outlived their usefulness,” Missouri said. “You have people walking out the door with the knowledge and people walking in without it. They are vulnerable, because the lobbyists have been doing this forever.
“They know all the ins and outs, and it’s easy to mislead somebody — not in an illegal sense, but in the sense that a decision may not be in the best interests of the county.”
Term-limit supporters, however, say that fervor for the limits hasn’t faded. When politicians try to overturn term limits, voters consistently defend them, said Philip Blumel, president of the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits.
Elected officials should be able to carry out their agendas in eight years, said Joe Brice, past president of the Prince George’s County Civic Federation. County Council members have support staffs, counsel and a slew of bureaucrats to help, he said.
“Quite frankly, Prince Georgians are smart people and figure out what the politicians are doing,” Robinson said. “And they vote the right way every time.”
But Franklin, the council chairman, said it takes time to learn complicated zoning and land-use laws. By the end of a first term, a council member has only begun to understand them, he said.
Kicking talented elected officials out of office puts Prince George’s at a disadvantage in the region, said outgoing council member Ingrid Turner, a past president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Turner (D-Bowie) argued that such projects as the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring in Montgomery County — which does not have term limits — came to fruition because there was a continuity of leadership.
“You may want fresh ideas, but you don’t want projects to start and stop,” Turner said. Voters “didn’t realize that when we fight for the Purple Line or FBI in Greenbelt that it’s going to take time.”
Term limits are one of the few ways to bring new leaders into office, proponents say, especially in a county such as Prince George’s, where non-Democrats are exceedingly rare.
“Two-thirds of voters don’t vote in primaries, and that is where elections are decided in Prince George’s,” said Thomas E. Dernoga, a former council member who advocated for term limits in 1992. “There is too much incumbent power to vote people out.”
Hudson, the spokesman for Baker, said that voters are more empowered now than they have ever been.
“Fourteen years is a long time,” he said, referring to the 2000 vote against a repeal.
“The ability for a voter to be engaged today is vastly different,” he said. “This new generation of voters has different and faster means of locating information about candidates to make decisions.”