2020 | Government

UPDATED: Group collects 16,000 signatures in favor of nine-district council ballot question

If petition drive is certified, voters would decide on removing at-large County Council seats

The potential ballot question would propose creating nine districts and changing the County Council's structure to all district seats.

File photo

This story was updated at 10:05 a.m. on Aug. 4, 2020, to include updates from the County Council’s action on Tuesday.

Montgomery County voters might be asked in the fall whether to overhaul the County Council’s current structure of five seats representing districts and four at-large seats, each representing the entire county.

A potential ballot question would propose removing the at-large seats and creating four additional districts, for a nine-district council.

The Nine Districts for MoCo group, chaired by Wheaton resident Kimblyn Persaud, had gathered about 16,000 signatures as of Monday, the deadline for submission. The group is required to gather at least 10,000 certified signatures to succeed.

The county’s Charter Review Commission recently decided, in a 5-4 vote, to recommend keeping the at-large seats. The commission is required to review the county’s charter every other year and consider recommendations on how it might be changed.

If the County Council agrees with the recommendations, they will put up for a public vote.

The signatures for the Nine Districts for MoCo group will have to be certified by Aug. 14.

The State Board of Elections announced on April 22 that it would allow electronic signatures to be collected for petitions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the 15,410 signatures on the nine-district petition, more than 5,570 were made online.

Persaud said she became interested in pursuing the district change because of her experience living in Wheaton.

“I live in an underserved community and I know how difficult it is to not matter, for the community to not matter, for us to not be able to get our at-large [council members’] attention,” she said. “We can’t sit here and think our County Council is going to do right by the majority of the people. It hasn’t. I believe in fair and equitable representation which is what we don’t have in Montgomery County.”

Persaud noted that about 70% of the county’s population lives in the upcounty area, while 30% lives in the “downcounty crescent.” The county’s population has grown 30% over the past 25 years.

“All four at-large members live [in downcounty], so how can you fairly represent someone when you don’t understand what their needs are and what their community’s needs are?” she said.

The county needs a more progressive nine-district council for fair representation and more democratically fair political structure, Persaud said.

“We don’t have a seat at the table — period,” she said. “It’s reflected by how the money is spent in our public services, our transportation, our housing.”

As an example, the placement of Metro stops shows a disparity in options for upcounty residents who need to get to jobs but can’t afford cars, she said.

“To ride the bus from Germantown to Bethesda — my gosh, you have to probably pack a lunch and a dinner,” Persaud said. “We’re simply not being heard and for a county that is so progressive, we are stuck in the past, using a system that’s a relic and inefficient.”

The Charter Review Commission’s majority opinion argued that residents would have more of a voice in the government by being able to elect more than one council member.

In presenting the majority opinion, George Margolies, chair of the Charter Review Commission, told the County Council in June, “Being able to vote for only one of nine council members, instead of a majority of the council, would significantly diminish citizens’ voices.”

But Persaud said she doesn’t have more than one council member she can go to.

“When I ask a question, if my district representative doesn’t want [an at-large member] to answer, they don’t get to answer,” she said. “That’s just the way it is. The district representation has the first and final word on projects in their district.”

Those who favor the nine-district proposal also have argued that there would be fewer constituents per council member, improving representation.

Currently, each of the five council members in a district represents about 200,000 people. 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.

The Charter Review Commission has reviewed council member seats numerous times in the past from 1992 to 2018.

Persaud said it’s a problem that the commission’s vote is a recommendation and that the council has final say on the matter.

“We can’t expect any government body to govern themselves,” she said.

The County Council unanimously approved the ballot question on Tuesday. Even though the council doesn’t have the authority to reject a ballot question that has enough signatures, the council is required, as a formality, to vote whether to accept it.

The council approved the question contingent on the Board of Elections certifying the required amount of signatures.

Kevin Karpinski, an attorney representing the county’s Board of Elections, wrote in an email on Friday evening that once the petition is filed with County Executive Marc Elrich’s Office, the Board of Elections will have 20 days to verify the signatures on the petition. At least 10,000 must be verified for it to qualify for the ballot.

“The County Council must approve the language to appear on the ballot in the event enough valid signatures were submitted,” he wrote. “It is not usual for the County Council to approve language subject to enough signatures being verified. With that said, I am not privy to what the County Council intends to address on Tuesday.”

Nine Districts for MoCo began collecting signatures for the petition at events and community meetings and outside Metro stations in August 2019. It halted its work for more than a month when the pandemic began. Then it learned that the state Board of Elections decided to allow online signatures.

“We were doing really good up until March and then everything stopped. … We had maybe 4,000 or 5,000 prior to everything shutting down,” Persaud said. “We’re required to have 10,000, but we wanted to have additional just in case any [signatures] were disallowed because [signers] didn’t put their birthday or their phone number down.”

Persaud said that once the signatures are certified and approved, the group will focus on building support for its movement.

“We demand to be heard. We’re done eating cake,” she said. “We want a steak like the rest of the County Council and downcounty is eating. We’re tired of the cake.”

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