Geography Fuels Review of County Council Structure

Geography Fuels Review of County Council Structure

Commission considering change because of Takoma Park members, but some say it's not warranted

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Takoma Park clock

via City of Takoma Park on Facebook

A commission is weighing whether the Montgomery County Council needs to change partly to avoid overrepresenting a single community. Currently, that community is Takoma Park, where three of the nine council members live.

The county’s Charter Review Commission is considering proposals to alter the nine-member council—composed of four at-large members elected countywide and five district members elected by the district’s residents—to reduce the number of at-large seats.

Paul Bessel, the commission’s chair, said Friday in an interview with Bethesda Beat, the commission took up the issue after hearing complaints that the nine-member council has three members from Takoma Park. The city is home to about 18,000 residents—a small percentage of the county’s population of 1 million people—and has historically been known as a liberal enclave.

“Some people are pretty mad about it, particularly from upcounty,” Bessel said.

The 11-member commission appointed by the council and county executive is weighing two proposals—one to reduce the four at-large seats to two and a second to eliminate at-large positions and have nine district council members, but it's also open to considering other changes. Montgomery Community Media first reported about the potential structural change.

The Montgomery County Council's five district members are elected by residents in each of the five districts. District map via County Council website.

Any change to the council makeup would require altering the county charter and would need to be approved by voters in a referendum. The commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed change on Oct. 18, then possibly vote on it during the winter before sending it to the County Council for review.

If a proposed structural change reaches the council, the members can either place it on the ballot, amend it and then put it on the ballot or decline to put it on the ballot. It could also be placed on the ballot through a voter signature drive such as the term limits referendum approved last year.

There are three at-large members from Takoma Park on the council—George Leventhal, Hans Riemer and Marc Elrich. Elrich and Leventhal are term-limited and cannot run again for the council. Both have launched campaigns for county executive.

Takoma Park is in Tom Hucker’s District 5 and he is a Silver Spring resident.

Leventhal and Riemer said last week that having three members from one specific part of the county is unusual, but likely a one-time blip.

“It’s an anomalous situation and it’s unlikely to be repeated,” Leventhal said.

“I certainly think geographic distribution of at-large members at any point in time is fairly random,” Riemer said. “It’s kind of a fluke.”

Leventhal said the county put the council structure with four-at large seats and five district seats in place to have a majority of the council represent every resident. In effect, residents are now represented by the four at-large members and their district member, which gives a resident the opportunity to lobby or write to a majority of the council about an issue. The structure has remained the same since 1990.

He also noted that countywide voters chose the Takoma Park residents to represent them.

“We put our names before the voters and they put their confidence in us,” Leventhal said. “If it’s an issue for the voters, then they can make the decision in 2018 to disperse representation to other parts of the county.”

The local politics blog Seventh State analyzed the issue last month and noted that Takoma Park’s dominance of at-large seats began in 2006 when when Elrich was first elected and Leventhal began his second term. It grew when Riemer moved from Silver Spring to the city after being elected to his first term in 2010.

Prior to that, residents from Burtonsville, Potomac, Gaithersburg, Chevy Chase and Garrett Park held at-large seats from 1990 to 2006. Nancy Floreen, the fourth at-large member on the current council, is from Garrett Park.

So far, only Riemer and one other Takoma Park resident, Seth Grimes, have said they’re running for at-large council seats in 2018. Therefore, there could be at most two Takoma Park residents on the council if both were to win in what’s shaping up to be a crowded field.

Grimes wrote the commission on Saturday and said he sees underrepresentation as an issue, but believes adding more district members and keeping the number of at-large members at four would help boost district council member responsiveness.

Riemer recommended that the commission wait to handle this subject until after the 2018 election.

But Bessel, a Leisure World resident, dismissed the “blip” talk by saying several council members from one place could be voted in again if the council structure is not changed. He said council members are more likely to aid residents from their districts or from their neighborhoods than elsewhere.

He also noted that before Grimes weighed in, no member of the public had formally written the commission with their opinion on the council’s structure, but he encouraged residents to do so.

Elrich said he would support changing the structure of the council, but not because he thinks Takoma Park has too much influence.

Instead, he said he’d like to see more district council members added to reduce the influence of big-money contributors who he believes have traditionally financed countywide at-large campaigns. He also said that each district council member represents about 220,000 people and the large districts make it difficult for council members to make direct voter contact.

He said he may support keeping two or four at-large council members and adding four district council members to the existing five to reduce the size of districts and also keep some countywide representation on the council. That would increase the size of the council to 11 or 13 members.

He noted that it costs about $50,000 to send a countywide political mailer to voters.

“There are no grassroots groups in the county that provide that scale of money. Not even labor groups come close to that,” Elrich said.

As to whether Takoma Park’s politics influence county policy, that’s up for debate.

All three council members from Takoma Park said they’ve never favored the city when making policy decisions.

Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart pointed to the city’s Safe Grow Act that went into effect in 2015 that banned certain pesticides from being used on private properties or public rights-of-way in the city as similar to the council’s general pesticide ban that’s scheduled to go into effect in 2018. All three council members from Takoma Park sponsored the county bill along with Floreen and District 4 council member Nancy Navarro.

Stewart said she’d also like to see the county pass a plastic bag ban similar to the one the city put into effect last year. But she said changing the structure of the council because three members are from the city is “reactionary and wrongheaded.”

“The goal is to have the best representation,” Stewart said. “Not to say, ‘Oh, Takoma Park is overrepresented. Now we must change the system.’”

As to why Stewart thinks Takoma Park has served as a home base for elected officials, she said, “It’s a place where people feel very deeply about different issues and they act upon those beliefs. Sometimes, I like to joke it’s in our water.”

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