County Executive Marc Elrich has suggested making the Montgomery County Council larger, but more focused on district representation.
He suggested a change to the council structure Wednesday at a meeting of the Montgomery County Charter Review Commission.
His suggestion would create nine individual council districts and keep two or four at-large seats, he said, adding council members and increasing a sense of community representation.
The council currently is made up of nine members — five representing districts and four at-large.
“The county has grown so much that right now, each district council member represents around 200,000 people,” Elrich said. “So if you had nine district seats, those districts are smaller, they’re more accessible, and they’re easier to represent, because each council member is focusing on fewer people.”
Several council members agreed that the suggestion was important to consider, but admitted the proposal took them by surprise. A similar concept was suggested in 2010 and 2011, said Councilman Will Jawando, but the current council hasn’t discussed the idea and wasn’t aware the county executive intended to make the proposal at to the Charter Review Commission.
“When I heard he did that, I was like, ‘Oh,’ Jawando said.
“I think I was surprised to learn that the county executive attended this meeting to suggest something that directly affects the council without going to the council first,” added council president Nancy Navarro. “I’m always interested in better serving the community, but this is something we’ve had the opportunity to consider.”
It’s also something that contradicts the mission of the Charter Review Commission as a resident-led organization, said Councilman Andrew Friedson. In his view, the commission was established as a resource for residents to make recommendations to the council without overt political influence.
“So, in that sense, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of that process for public officials to weight in as an attempt to dictate the outcome before the commission has the opportunity to form their own recommendations,” he said.
In an interview on Wednesday, Elrich acknowledged that he didn’t bring up the suggestion with council members before he attended the meeting. “This is my opinion, not the council’s opinion, so if people have other ideas, they should speak about them,” he said.
Representatives for the charter review commission were also quick to emphasize that Elrich made the comments as part of a broader set of suggestions for the county.
The majority of the 11-member commission just started their first terms, said Chairman George Margolies, and are considering a range of proposals on the charter from a wide variety of sources.
The commission invited both Elrich and County Council members to attend meetings as their schedules permitted and offer suggestions.
“The county executive spoke for about 15 minutes and mentioned a few items the commission might want to consider,” Margolies said. “The commission discussed it a little bit [yesterday] after he left, but we’re not sure what we’re going to do with it yet.”
It’s not the first time the county executive has endorsed this change, he said, and it’s not the first time the charter review commission has heard a suggestion to change the structure of the county council.
The idea has come up several times in the last few decades, Margolies said, including in 1986, when the council expanded from seven to nine members.
In 2006, the Charter Review Commission considered three separate proposals to change the council structure: expanding to 11 members with eight district and three at-large representatives; moving to all-district representation; and maintaining nine seats with only one at-large member.
Elrich’s idea is still preliminary. The charter commission would be responsible for discussing the proposal, he said, and considering how to carry out the change. If the commission took up the issue, it would be referred to the council for approval and go to a public vote if members supported the change.
Kate Masters can be reached at Kate.Masters@Bethesdamagazine.com