The Prince George’s County Council is considering a charter amendment that would add two at-large seats to the panel, expanding the county legislature from nine to 11 members.
The proposal is part of an ongoing government-reform effort aimed at discouraging parochialism, supporters say, while also giving lawmakers in the region’s least-affluent county opportunities to provide broader representation.
It has reignited a long and bitter battle over whether residents would benefit from expanding their government so that elected officials could serve longer, or are better off limiting the scope of public office.
“We are nine individual parts, with everyone wanting a piece of that pie in their district to help their district,” said council Chairman Derrick Leon Davis (D-Mitchellville) during a recent briefing. Governing, he said, requires people who understand they are not just accountable to their districts but to “nearly a million people in Prince George’s County.”
University Park resident Laura Donnelly, a longtime government skeptic, sees it differently.
“We don’t need two more seats,” she said. “More of them means more to bribe.”
The bill introduced in the council June 14 would create a ballot referendum proposing the at-large positions. If the bill is approved by the council with the required two-thirds majority, voters will decide in November whether to add the seats.
In an effort to avoid allegations that the bill is about advancing specific political careers, the legislation was sponsored by the council’s four first-term members, who can seek a second term on the panel regardless of whether the new seats are created.
The remaining five members are serving their second and final terms but would be able to run at large in 2018 if voters approve the change.
When Prince George’s formed its first charter government in 1970, there were five at-large council members. The next year, voters approved six additional council members, one at large and the rest district-based. After a ballot referendum in 1980, the council shrank to nine members, all district-based.
With district representation, legislators can be more sensitive to community-specific problems and give a voice to underrepresented constituencies, advocates say. But such a structure has also led to fights over resources and elevated district priorities over county ones.
“When you’re fighting over pennies,” Davis said, “you never get to fight for dollars.”
At-large council members could be more impartial and focus on countywide priorities, officials said. Legislatures in neighboring jurisdictions — including the District and Montgomery and Arlington counties — all include at least some at-large members. In Fairfax County, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors is elected at large.
None of those jurisdictions has term limits, though Republican activist Robin Ficker is collecting signatures for a ballot measure in Montgomery that would cap the number of council terms at three.
Prince George’s officials say broader representation, and the opportunity for council members to serve up to four terms, would give Prince George’s more seniority on regional boards that include elected officials and increase the county’s influence in state and regional affairs.
“This goes far beyond any individual election,” said council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro). “This is about the long-term view of the county.”
Historically, however, Prince George’s voters have not been open to similar changes.
In 2004, council member Thomas R. Hendershot (D-New Carrollton) pushed unsuccessfully to add two at-large seats. Opponents viewed it as an attempt by the term-limited lawmaker to prolong his political career. The measure was soundly defeated.
More than a decade later, supporters of at-large seats say the council needs to change if it wants to effectively tackle regional issues such as health care, housing and transportation.
“We’ve tried very hard to be non-parochial,”said council member Andrea C. Harrison (D-Springdale). “But when you are elected by a certain group of people . . . they want you to wholly look at their interests.”
David S. Harrington, of the county’s chamber of commerce, said that Prince George’s cannot afford to have the region’s least-experienced lawmakers. “We are no longer this farm at the border of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
But to county activists, expanding the legislature would be an expensive bloating of the bureaucracy and one more in a series of failed efforts by Prince George’s politicians to circumvent voter-imposed term limits.
Under the proposal, a council member elected to a district and then an at-large seat could end up serving at least 16 years, essentially doubling what is now possible.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) was the third politician in recent history to ask voters to change the county’s 1992 term-limits law. His 2014 proposal to extend limits from two to three terms was narrowly rejected at the polls.
Longtime county activist Sarah Cavitt said she is certain that adding at-large seats would worsen the system.
“There are specific problems with running at large,” she said. “It’s expensive, and only those who get a lot of money contributions can run. You need significant name recognition, and that narrows down the pool of possible candidates.”
The council will hold a public hearing on the issue at 7 p.m. July 11. Council members must vote before their August recess to be able to place the question on the ballot this fall.
Correction: Earlier versions of this article incorrectly described the last time the Prince George’s County Council changed its makeup. In 1980, the council went from 11 seats to nine following a ballot referendum. The change was not the result of a charter review.