Residents debate at large vs. district structure for Montgomery County Council

Residents debate at large vs. district structure for Montgomery County Council

Public sessions continue for input on charter review

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Charter review forum

Kimblyn Persaud (left, at lectern) speaks Saturday during a meeting of Montgomery County's Charter Review Commissio.

Photo by Andrew Schotz

Residents on Saturday debated how the Montgomery County Council should be structured for the best representation.

The primary question: Are constituents better off if all council members are elected by districts? Or does a system with at-large council members work well?

The county’s Charter Review Commission is studying what, if any, changes should be made to the makeup of the council. The main topics are whether the council should continue to have nine members and whether the current structure — five members elected by separate districts; the remaining four members elected at large, or countywide — should change.

Every four years, a commission is chosen to review the county charter. The 11-member commission is expected to submit a report to the County Council by May 1 of each even-numbered year. If the County Council agrees with the commission’s recommendations, they go on the ballot for voter approval in November.

On Saturday in Burtonsville, the commission held the second of five meetings to invite public input.

Paul Bessel, the previous chair of the Charter Review Commission, said he was surprised the council structure is back for more debate. While he was on the commission, it recommended leaving the structure as is.

Even though many residents called for an end to at-large representation, Bessel said, the last election attracted an unusually high 33 candidates for the four at-large seats, showing an interest in representing the entire county.

Bessel, who lives in Leisure World, also spoke against an idea County Executive Marc Elrich pitched to the commission in September: expanding to nine council districts, instead of five, along with either two or four at-large seats. Bessel called this a bad idea for multiple reasons. The larger the body, the tougher it is to make decisions, he said, and a larger body brings higher expenses.

Laurie Halverson of Potomac spoke in favor of having a nine-member council elected entirely by district. She said it would lead to council members more likely to align with and listen to their constituents.

Halverson talked about the difficulty when she ran unsuccessfully for school board of trying to reach an entire county of voters or getting campaign signs set up at every precinct’s polling place.

One thread common during Saturday’s hearing was the challenge of a district-elected council member trying to effectively represent about 200,000 people. Having nine districts, for example, would cut that number almost in half.

On the other hand, some said, having four at-large representatives for each resident in addition to one elected by district means choosing, and getting representation, from five council members.

However, a drawback some cited of the at-large system is that it allows too many people from one area to be elected. In recent years, critics have focused on the high concentration of council members from the Silver Spring and Takoma Park.

Peter Myo Khin, who lives in council District 5, said he found it easy to reach all of the council members and suggested keeping the system as it is.

But if the number of at-large seats were cut, he said, it would make sense to create another east county district and give people there more of a voice.

Kimblyn Persaud said Wheaton, where she lives, gets short shrift, as elected officials don’t pay attention to inequalities affecting the quality of life there. For that reason, she supports a council elected entirely by district.

She is the chair of a group called Nine Districts for MoCo pushing to put that idea on the ballot in the fall.

A graphic on the group’s website notes that seven current council members live among 30 percent of the county’s population in a southern swath nicknamed the “down county crescent.” The county has grown so much, it no longer makes sense to have just five districts, the group contends.

Council district mapFive of Montgomery County’s council members are elected by district, as shown by the numbered areas. The other four are elected at large. (Map from Montgomery County website.)

Sharon Brown of Colesville agreed that east county needs better representation on the council. She said she could see the merits of both at-large and district representation, and suggested that a hybrid of both might be the best approach.

East county resident Sebastian Smoot said he had a tough time scheduling a meeting with his district council member and the staff. But when he contacted at-large council members, they met with him and took his concerns seriously, so he sees the value in having multiple representatives.

At-large Council Member Will Jawando, who attended the meeting, said he disputes the idea that only a district member can adequately represent a person or area. Staff members in his office are assigned different parts of the county to focus on.

He said that having representatives who can step back and look broadly at the county’s needs is a significant plus. Eliminating all at-large positions on the council would be a mistake, he said.

The Charter Review Commission’s first public meeting was on Jan. 26 in Bethesda.

The final three meetings will be:

  • Feb. 22 at Olney Community Library, Medium Room #2, 3500 Olney-Laytonsville Road, from 2:30 to 4 p.m.
  • March 4 at the Council Office Building, third-floor hearing room, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville, from 6:30 to 8 p.m.
  • March 23 at the Upcounty Regional Services Center, Conference Room A, 12900 Middlebrook Road, Germantown

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