Size, Composition of Montgomery County Council under Review

Size, Composition of Montgomery County Council under Review

Charter Review Commission takes up issue after Elrich’s recommendation

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Commission

Members of the county's Charter Review Commission discussed whether to study possible changes to the County Council at a meeting on Wednesday.

Photo by Kate Masters

The county’s Charter Review Commission will study the makeup of the Montgomery County Council, members decided Wednesday — a review County Executive Marc Elrich endorsed last month.

In September, five members of the commission voted in favor of studying possible amendments to a section of the charter that governs the current composition of the council at five district members and four at-large members. Five commission members voted against, and the motion failed for lack of majority.

Vice Chair Laura Goddeeris decided to reopen the discussion on Wednesday based on what she described as a “surprising” level of interest from commission members last month.

“If there’s so much interest from multiple people, it’s certainly a charter issue,” she said. “I think it’s worth going back and digging into the possibility.”

Chairman George Margolies was quick to emphasize that the commission had been considering a study on council composition before Elrich included it on his list of recommendations last month. The makeup of the council — including the distribution of district and at-large seats — has been a recurring point of discussion since its size was last amended in 1986.

Previous commission members considered the issue as recently as 2018, when they debated whether to decrease or eliminate at-large representatives and expand the size of the council overall.

But Elrich’s recommendation still came as a surprise to current council members, who weren’t expecting him to weigh in on the debate. The county executive specifically recommended creating nine individual council districts and keeping two or four at-large seats, expanding the size of the council and improving representation.

“I think with more districts, each council member would have to focus on fewer people and look at the needs more closely in a smaller area,” Elrich, a former council member, said in a phone interview after he made the recommendation in September. “It’s a lot of work to be a council member — district or at-large — and I think you’d create districts that are more accessible, easier to represent, easier to campaign in, and that increase a sense of representation.”

The merits of those points dominated the conversation at the commission’s meeting on Wednesday. To justify a recommended change to the council, some commission members argued, they would need to study whether the county’s growing population — which expanded 13.2% between 1990 and 2018 — really made it more difficult for council members to respond to residents.

Elrich also argued that the size of the county made it more expensive to campaign as an at-large representative. The cost of running could shut out viable candidates who couldn’t compete with better-funded opponents, commission member Chris Danley said Wednesday at the meeting.

But others said that the county’s new public-financing law addressed that concern — an argument bolstered by at-large Council Member Gabe Albornoz. The policy, which matches campaign contributions for candidates who only accept individual donations between $5 and $150, allowed him to raise more than $150,000 for the race, he said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

“I think that really leveled the playing field, which helps explain why we had 34 candidates for County Council last election,” Albornoz said. “I didn’t personally have an issue with putting a lot of miles on my car and knocking on doors throughout the entire county.”

Right now, the Charter Review Commission doesn’t have a lot of hard data on the effectiveness of the current council, Margolies said. That’s why its members only voted to study the issue, and to give themselves plenty of time to collect feedback.

The commission is responsible for sending a report to the County Council on even-numbered years with recommendations for possible charter amendments. But members agreed not to send a recommendation on the council’s composition in their 2020 report unless they all felt the issue had been adequately studied.

If the commission sent a recommendation in 2022, it could require an additional redistricting, County Attorney Edward Lattner said. The county’s boundaries are scheduled to be redrawn based on the upcoming census, and the redistricting commission will issue a final report in November 2021.

If the Charter Review Commission recommends adding new council districts after those boundaries are redrawn, its members would also need to push for another redistricting in 2023.

“Otherwise, their recommendation would just sit there for 10 years until the next census,” Lattner said.

Even considering the logistics of redistricting is premature until commission members decide whether to issue a recommendation at all, Margolies said. Their suggestion would then require approval from the County Council before it went to a public vote.

The composition of the council is currently the only charter issue the commission is considering.

“Given the importance of the issue, I think it will take up a lot of our time and focus,” Margolies said at the meeting.

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