2020 | Government

Petition to change County Council structure to nine districts approved for ballot

More than 11,500 signatures accepted, surpassing minimum requirement

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This story was updated at 8:55 a.m. Aug. 22, 2020, to remove an incorrect reference to the geographic breakdown of the county’s population.

A petition to change the Montgomery County Council’s structure to nine district seats was approved by election officials on Friday and will appear on the ballot for the general election.

The petition was organized by Nine Districts for MoCo, a local group of residents who argue that there is inequal representation on the council with the current structure of five district seats and four at-large seats.

The ballot question isn’t the only one that county voters will face regarding a change to the council structure.

On Aug. 4, the council approved putting its own restructuring proposal on the general election ballot, too.

That idea, which County Council Member Evan Glass proposed, is to expand the council from nine seats to 11. There would still be four at-large seats, but the number of district seats would increase from five to seven.

The two questions will both be placed on the November general election ballot.

Wheaton resident Kimblyn Persaud chairs the local group that petitioned for a referendum. Supporters of her effort have pointed out that all four of the council’s at-large members — Glass, Gabe Albornoz, Will Jawando and Hans Riemer — live in the downcounty area.

According to a letter sent to Persaud by the county’s Board of Elections on Friday, Nine Districts for MoCo collected 16,391 signatures. Of those, 11,522 were accepted and 4,869 were rejected.

A referendum must receive at least 10,000 certified signatures to be placed on the ballot.

The rejected signatures were taken out of the final count for several reasons, including signers not being registered to vote, duplicate names, date problems, invalid addresses and signature problems.

The two referendum questions come after the county’s Charter Review Committee’s recommendation in June to make no changes to the council’s structure. The commission voted 5-4 against recommending a change to nine district seats.

Persaud told Bethesda Beat in an interview Friday evening that she wasn’t surprised the referendum passed the process of certification.

“I never [thought] for a minute that we wouldn’t get the signatures that we needed,” she said. “We’re in campaign mode now. We got the official letter and we are good to go.”

Persaud said the group will start purchasing yard signs and has been fundraising for the effort. She did not immediately know how much the group has raised so far.

Persaud said she felt that Glass’s proposal for expanding the council seats was “kind of shady” because the public wasn’t able to respond to it through a hearing.

“I think it’s completely irresponsible,” she said of the proposal. “We are in the worst economic crisis we’ve ever experienced and there’s a projected loss of [tax] revenue of [up to] $600 million over the next two years [for fiscal years 2020 and 2021].

“And yet, this council is saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to add two county council seats. Those two County Council seats come with four staff members, so that’s a total of eight and we’re going to have to pay for all of that — salaries, benefits, and on top of that, construction of the place for them to be housed [in county offices].”

The nine-district proposal would not have any additional cost to the county, she said.

“That just shows how fiscally irresponsible they are. They don’t care about the communities that are hurting,” she said. “This is about inequitable representation for all people in Montgomery County.”

Glass told Bethesda Beat in an interview Friday evening that he expects the council will have many more conversations about the proposals in the weeks and months to come.

“The voters of Montgomery County will ultimately decide whether they want to be represented by five members of the council or one,” he said. “That is the fundamental question we are facing.”

He declined to comment further regarding the nine-district petition.

County Council President Sidney Katz told Bethesda beat in an interview Friday evening that he supports the current structure of the council.

“Right now, every person in Montgomery County has the ability to vote for a majority of the Montgomery County Council members and of course, if you go to nine districts, you wouldn’t have that,” he said. “You would be voting for one council member. I think there’s a lot of advantages to what we’re doing right now.”

Regardless, residents have the right to voice their opinion through their votes, Katz said.

“That’s what an election is all about. So that there can be options for what people think is a good idea,” he said. “That’s the fairest way to do things.”

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