TWICE IN the past 16 years, voters in Montgomery County have rejected term limits for local elected officials. They should again by saying no on next month’s ballot to Question B, which would set three-term limits for the county executive and members of the County Council.
Montgomery, Maryland’s most populous jurisdiction, has an unusually engaged, motivated electorate, perfectly willing to show incumbents the door, as it has with at-large members of the council three times in the past 14 years. That’s an effective means of exercising term limits surgically; no improvement would result from Question B’s meat-cleaver approach.
Its presence on the Nov. 8 ballot arises from the exertions of Robin Ficker, an anti-tax activist who was also responsible for putting similar measures before the voters in 2000 and 2004.
Mr. Ficker is irate that the county raised property taxes this year, the first significant increase for homeowners in seven years, driven both by the need to maintain a top-flight school system and to plug a revenue gap stemming from a Supreme Court ruling that Maryland has unconstitutionally double-taxed income earned outside the state.
The best argument for term limits is that they prompt an infusion of new blood into tired governing bodies and, possibly, more diverse pools of candidates. In practice, Montgomery has a council that, whatever its faults, is reasonably diverse if top-heavy with veterans: Of the council’s nine members, five would be barred from seeking reelection in 2018 if voters approved Question B, which would impose a limit for three four-year terms. (The limit would also apply to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), but he is likely to retire in any event.)
There are several problems with term limits, beyond the fact that they are unnecessary in places such as Montgomery. One is that fresh eyes are also dewy, and local governance is complicated. It can take a couple of years for members to gain the expertise they need to become effective.
A vacuum of experience in a council stocked with relative novices is a recipe for shifting power to unelected staffers and, more worryingly, special interests with deep pockets — in Montgomery’s case, developers and public-employee unions. Recent history suggests that the longer members hold office, the less sway special interests have.
Prince George’s County, the only Washington-area locality with term limits, offers a useful counter-example. With a two-term maximum, the council is constantly starting anew. And while the council’s current lineup is a decided improvement on some in the recent past, it lacks the expertise found in Montgomery.
The right way to set term limits is to throw bad officials out of office. Montgomery voters are up to that task; they should reject Question B.