2020 | Government

Divided charter commission recommends no changes to council structure

Narrow majority prefers keeping at-large seats

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Montgomery County's Charter Review Commission was divided over the structure of the council. The majority vote was to keep the at-large seats.

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A slim majority of Montgomery County’s Charter Review Commission supports keeping the County Council structure as it is, with at-large seats.

In a 5-4 vote, the commission recommended making no changes to the nine council seats — five in districts and four at-larg.

An alternative option was to change the four at-large council seats to district seats, creating nine districts.

At the County Council’s virtual meeting on Tuesday, George Margolies, chair of the Charter Review Commission, presented the majority opinion, which argued that keeping the at-large seats would allow for more voting representation for residents.

Instead of voting for one district seat under the possible change, residents now can vote for five people representing them, which expands their influence, Margolies said.

“Being able to vote for only one of nine council members, instead of a majority of the council, would significantly diminish citizens’ voices,” he said.

The Charter Review Commission has been working throughout the year on a review of the county’s charter.

Every other year, the commission is required to present a report to the County Council. If the council agrees with the recommendations, they go on the ballot for a decision by voters in November.

One topic that came up in the commission’s public meetings earlier this year was the challenge of a district-elected council member trying to effectively represent about 200,000 people in the current system, which has five districts. Having nine districts, for example, would cut that number almost in half.

The four at-large council members represent everyone in the county, which had an estimated population of about 1.05 million as of last year.

But in his presentation to the County Council on Tuesday, Margolies said that having nine district members might create an imbalance of interests on issues affecting the entire county.

“Although it’s indisputable that the county has grown in population, it’s a non sequitur to argue that this dictates smaller districts. We don’t subscribe to the notion that your districts are unmanageable, “ he told the council.

Margolies suggested that the “better” answer is to increase staff support to council members to address increases in communication and needs for multilingual communication.

The county’s population has grown 30% over the past 25 years, he said, while the number of council central staff members have grown by 3% and the number of council office staff members have grown by 10%.

But Christopher Danley, a member of the commission who presented the minority report, said the county’s population growth was a reason to increase the district seats.

“The county is too large and too populous for five districts,” he told the council. “The current council structure was put into place about 30 years ago.”

During four community sessions, residents said there wasn’t enough representation of certain areas since seven council members live down county, Danley said.

“The uneven distribution of council members is not a random occurrence, but seems to be an ongoing problem,” he said, adding that creating more districts could lead to more diversity in candidates.

He said campaign costs for at-large seats could increase the likelihood of “special interest groups to capture the county’s agenda.” The campaign contributions to at-large candidates could come with strings attached, he said.

“Regardless of how you feel about the merits of at-large seats, the people of Montgomery County have a right to vote on this issue,” he said. “The council is being presented with an opportunity to exercise [citizens’] rights.”

A public hearing on the recommendations is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. July 7.

A majority of the council disagreed with Danley’s argument for changing the council structure.

Several council members adamantly disputed the idea that at-large candidates are influenced by campaign donations.

Council Member Craig Rice, who represents District 2, said at-large Council Member Will Jawando, who was endorsed by the Fraternal Order of Police, was one example since he has led the council in proposals for changing the police department.

“It has no effect. … It’s absolutely false,” Rice said.

He said he wasn’t sure who Danley spoke. Rice said people in his community have said they are happy with the structure of the at-large council seats.

At-large Council Member Hans Riemer said residents should be able to ask for help and support from multiple council members instead of one.

“It is a huge reduction of influence, representation, political power for every single resident of this county,” he said.

Council Member Nancy Navarro, who represents District 4, said it’s a misconception that district council members don’t have the “big picture” in mind or don’t work towards a holistic vision for the county.

“We, as district council members, have to constantly understand and meet with groups that are not within our own district,” she said.

It’s a cliché to assert that members are beholden to campaign donors, she said.

“That is not an issue in Montgomery County. All people need to do is look at our track record,” she said. “Right now, there are a lot of angry people with us because we’ve had to make some harsh fiscal decisions.”

Navarro said she would like the commission to consider a change to allow voters to elect a council president, instead of the council choosing its own leader. A one-year term seems too short before rotating out, she said.

Council Member Sidney Katz, who represents District 3, said it would be wrong for the council to ignore the recommendation of the majority of the commission.

“I believe what’s fair is fair,” he said. “It would be wrong to override the commission’s decision to say that this should be something different than what the commission is saying.”

Having an all-district council would set the county back, at-large Council Member Gabe Albornoz.

Council Member Evan Glass, who is at-large, questioned whether the commission considered adding two district seats to make a total of 11 council seats. He said the additional district seats would add district representation while maintaining the four at-large seats.

Margolies said the commission discussed other options, such as having seven district and two-large members, adding district seats, and increasing both district and at-large seats in the same proportion.

“I was not inclined to go to an expansion of the number of seats on the council by adding additional districts because. … enlarging the council, I thought, would dilute collegiality, diminish the opportunity to reach consensus, and prolong debate without any significant benefit to the council’s current structure,” he said.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.