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Proposed Legislation Could Allow County Council to Stagger Elections of Council Members

In November voters in Montgomery County sent politically minded folks in the County into a frenzy with the passage of the Term Limits Referendum. It made sitting Council members upset. It made potential candidates eyes go wide with wonder at the possibilities. It set the County’s political machines on their ear.

It also meant that there was the future potential for a County Council which could lose all or most of their members. Future sitting council members could be forced out due to term limits or voted out by losing an election. That would mean a lot of knowledge and wisdom leaving the county council at once. As such, Delegate Al Carr, Jr., (District 18 – Chevy Chase) set to work to find some way to lessen the sting.

To do that, Carr came up with an old idea, one that Cecil County enacted 15 years ago — staggering election terms of local officials. However, critics are calling it a political end-run around the voters’ desire for term limits.

Last month, Carr introduced House Bill 348, which seeks to amend the Maryland State Constitution to allow authorizing the future sitting members of the Montgomery County Council to enact legislation to stagger the terms of office for the members of the Council.

Currently, all members of the County Council are up for re-election at that same time, during the gubernatorial, or mid-term elections which are held every four years. The next council election would be held in 2018.

House Bill 348 calls for allowing the Council to decide if some members of the county council may be elected at the presidential general election and some members may be elected at the gubernatorial general election. The effect would be to stagger the election of council members so that some seats on the County Council would be up for election every two years. However, each elected council member would serve a four-year term.

Carr said that the bill was not a new idea and that he proposed a similar bill last year, however, last year’s bill would have allowed for all counties in Maryland to stagger elections. “The feedback I got last year was, ‘Hey, this is an interesting idea next year you should put this in again, but just for Montgomery County. That is what I did,” said Carr.

Currently, the only Maryland county with staggered elections is Cecil County, where an exception was created in 2000 and took effect in 2002. Cecil County currently elects its five council members and county executive to four-year terms but elects two council members and the county executive during the presidential elections and three council members during the gubernatorial elections.

One of the benefits that Cecil County saw after going to staggered local council elections was an increase in voter turnout. “When Cecil County changed to staggered elections their voter turnout when way up in both the presidential year and in the mid-term year elections,” said Carr.

“I haven't made a decision on this bill with regard to my personal vote,” said Delegate Kirill Reznick, (District 39-Germantown), “but I don't see it as an end-run around the term limit bill. That will still apply, but I believe that the advocates want to stagger terms to prevent the possibility of the entire Council being replaced and losing all of the institutional memory at once. Many elected bodies have staggered terms from our county school board to the United States Senate.”

Indeed, many local Montgomery County municipalities have a staggered election system including City of Takoma Park, the City of Gaithersburg, the Town of Kensington, and the Town of Garrett Park, including the Board of Education.

Carr said that after serving on the town council for Kensington, which had staggered elections, he wondered why no such staggering of terms was allowed at the County Council level.

House Bill 348 has been introduced in the Maryland House but has not yet been voted on by the Montgomery County Delegation. Because the bill would only affect Montgomery County, the members of the County Delegation must approve it for it to make its way further to the Maryland State Legislature. The measure would need a simple majority of all 24 members, or 13 votes to move forward. The members of the Montgomery County Delegation are expected to vote to approve the Bill on Friday, Feb. 17. If it does not get 13 votes for, the bill will die and be removed from the process at the State House level.

Bill 348 had its First Reading in the House on Jan. 25 and was sent to the Ways & Means Committee for a public hearing which will take place today, (Wednesday, Feb. 16). If the bill makes it out of Committee and is voted up by the County Delegation, it will be sent for Second and Third Readings before being sent to the Senate for consideration. To be enacted, a change to the Maryland Constitution would require a three-fifths approval from both the House and Senate. At that point, according to Reznick, because it is a change to the Maryland Constitution, it would be placed on the ballot during the 2018 gubernatorial election to be approved or rejected by voters statewide.

According to Carr, if approved by the voters in 2018, Montgomery County would gain a local option to implement staggered terms and could do so by amending its charter and code for the 2022 election. Bill 348 would only amend the Maryland Constitution to give the Montgomery County Council the option to change its elections; it would not require it.

However, the Bill itself makes no mention of the need for the County Council to wait until 2022, and as such the change to the charter could happen prior to the 2020 mid-term elections, which might be a way for the Council to extend the terms of Council members Craig Rice (District 2) and Hans Reimer (At Large), however, both men would need to have been reelected to their current seats in 2018.

While the extension of the terms of sitting council members would be a temporary one-time happening and many pieces would have to fall into place for that to happen, critics say the move is politically motivated. On his campaign FaceBook page, Tom Ferleman, a Republican candidate for County Council in 2018 said, “This is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise voters who called for term limits in our community.”

Ferleman told the Germantown Pulse, "The County Council is attempting an end-run around the voters. Through HB 348, they are knowingly trying to violate the will of the electorate through their surrogates in the General Assembly. They have crossed the line of service to our community and orchestrated a corrupting narrative. Once again, the bi-partisan citizens of Montgomery County find themselves in a battle against the County Council; we will send another strong message to them and kill this deceptive bill in Committee."

Carr did not believe that any currently sitting members of the Montgomery County Council would benefit from his bill. “It would not affect any sitting County Council members, or it is unlikely too. It does not change anything about the term limits. In fact, the County Council voted 5-3 to oppose the Bill in early January,” said Carr.

Caption: The Maryland Statehouse.

Photo Credit: By Thisisbossi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

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