2020 | Government

Voters could get competing plans for County Council structure

After group petitions to have nine districts, current council pitches different idea

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The Montgomery County Council put forward its own proposal to change the council structure by adding two additional district seats. A separate community petition proposes a nine-district council.

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This story was updated at 9:19 p.m. on Aug. 4, 2020, to include additional details on the amendments. It was updated again at 12:25 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2020, to clarify when the current council structure took effect.

As a group of Montgomery County residents pushes for nine council districts, the current council is pitching another plan.

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

The council approved Glass’s idea, putting it on the November general election ballot.

A group called Nine Districts for MoCo is lobbying for another way to remake the county — keep it at nine seats, but eliminate the four at-large positions. All nine council seats would be elected by districts.

The group submitted around 16,000 signatures to the county Board of Elections on Monday. If the board certifies at least 10,000 signatures by Aug. 14, the measure would be on the November ballot, too, giving voters two choices for restructuring the council.

But now the County Council has submitted its own proposal for a change to its structure.

The current council structure — five district seats and four at-large seats — was approved in 1986 and took effect in 1990.

But since then, the residential population has increased by nearly 50%, Glass said Tuesday in pitching his idea.

“That shift has resulted in us having the largest populated districts in the D.C. region, with more than 210,000 people per district,” he said. “Adding two districts would put us more in line with comparable jurisdictions, increase the diversity of the council and allow residents to maintain an important component of our current system — voting for more than one member of the council.”

Council Member Craig Rice (District 2) said that having more than 210,000 people is challenging.

“When we’re looking at the broad swath of geography that we represent, it’s quite large,” he said. “For a district council member’s focus, it creates some challenges. Not only that, but I also know our community could benefit from having folks who have a more focused approach when it comes to representation.”

But Council Member Andrew Friedson (District 1) said he had doubts about the suggested change in structure to the council.

He said residents aren’t asking for more seats to be added to the council during a time of economic crisis. Geographic representation is what they’re seeking, he said.

“I’m not sure that this particular proposal really does speak to the heart of the concerns and issues that have been raised,” he said. “As a voter, I have real concern about my personal vote being diluted in terms of my ability to control with my vote and have a say with my vote — a majority of five of nine of the council.”

Friedson said Glass’s proposal maintains representation, but dilutes it.

“It takes away the ability for every voter to be able to vote on a majority of the council — five of nine,” he said. “That is a big difference. Five of 11 is not the same level of influence as five of nine.”

Council Member Nancy Navarro (District 4) said she had reservations about the proposal, but was open to having it on the ballot to see what voters wanted.

The council voted 8-1 to put Glass’s measure on the ballot. Friedson was opposed.

The council approved the Nine Districts for MoCo petition to appear on the ballot as a legal formality — the council could not reject it. The approval is contingent on the 10,000 certified signatures.

Nine Districts for MoCo argued that having nine districts, without at-large seats, will help with representation. It will create smaller districts, making it easier for a council member to understand the district’s needs.

The petitioners also argued strongly against having several at-large council members come from the same area, giving one part of the county much more representation than the rest. Advocates for change have pointed to the current imbalance, in which seven of nine council members live south and east of North Bethesda.

But several council members said Tuesday that the nine-district proposal isn’t the right approach for a stronger voice for upcounty residents upset that most council members live in downcounty.

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.

Navarro said the referendum on an all-district council would be a step back for the county.

“Doing this whole entire restructuring of nine district council members and no at-large brings us almost to a completely different level of parochialism and it doesn’t really speak to what we need to do, which is to continually evolve to keep up with the times,” she said.

At-large Council Member Hans Riemer said the proposal would strip political power away from residents.

“If you have a concern about county services, you have more than one council member to seek support from,” he said. “In the future, under this proposal, you would only have one. If you want the county to adopt a policy, you [now] have multiple council members you can communicate to and hold accountable with your vote.”

Jawando echoed Riemer’s concerns and said residents should want to expand democracy, not reduce their influence.

At-large Council Member Gabe Albornoz noted that Prince George’s County used to have an all-district council, which had “significant political ramifications” and made it more difficult for residents to be heard.

“Their community fought hard for a number of years to be able to add at-large positions to address the more holistic needs of the county as a whole,” he said.

He said he understood the frustration and concerns that led to the petition, but another proposal on the table would address those concerns.

On Tuesday, the council considered other changes, including having residents choose the council president. Another possibility was a residency requirement for at-large council members to live in certain quadrants of the county.

Riemer proposed the council president election referendum idea. But he withdrew it after several other council members said they were interested in the proposal, but wanted the county’s Charter Review Commission and the Office of Legislative Oversight to review it.

The council president and vice president are currently elected by the entire council and have one-year terms which end at the beginning of December. Council President Sidney Katz (District 3) said he wasn’t sure that residents cared who the council president is.

In addition to allowing all voters to elect the council president, Riemer’s proposal would have also specified that an at-large member had to fill the role and that the position would have a separate office from other council members. Under the recommendation, a council president could serve up to three terms of four years each.

Navarro introduced the residency requirement for at-large council members. The council voted 5-4 against the proposal. Council Vice President Tom Hucker (District 5) and Council Members Albornoz, Glass, Jawando, and Riemer voted against the amendment.

Voting in favor were Katz, Friedson, Navarro and Rice.

The proposal suggested requiring the four at-large district members to each live in one of four quadrants, but still be elected by all county voters.

Navarro said the amendment would address the concerns about at-large members being concentrated downcounty.

But Albornoz said that when he tried explaining the proposal to some county residents, they didn’t understand how it would be different from a district council seat.

“I am very concerned that if we add an additional ballot measure that further potentially creates confusion, that people will vote for what seems the most clear,” he said of the nine-district petition.

Riemer said he felt that it was confusing, as well.

“I think that it could work, but I think it’s difficult to explain. …I think we should dismiss the risk of putting something before the voters that is confusing even as it has, I think, substantive merit,” he said.

He said the proposal should also be directed to further study by the Charter Review Commission.

Katz said he supported the amendment because voters should have options on the ballot.

“I believe this should be another option that the public has the right to decide,” he said. “Not as a reflection on who is here now, but to decide for themselves directly, whether they like the idea of expanding government, or they don’t. … It’s discourtesy to the public not to allow them to have that option to decide this measure.”

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