County examines council representation to add diversity
A County commission chairperson has tasked the Montgomery County Charter Review Commission with changing the composition of the County’s nine Council districts after residents said they believe they are under-represented by At-Large Council members.
Montgomery County Charter Review Commission chairperson Paul Bessel said reducing or eliminating the at-large Council seats is among the options the commission is considering.
The chief complaint is that too many At-Large Council members live in one area, the City of Takoma Park, which is located in the south-eastern region of the County. Takoma Park borders Washington, D.C. and Prince George's County.
Bessel said people who primarily live in Gaithersburg, Germantown and Clarksburg - the fastest growing area in Montgomery County – said they believe their region of the County is not represented by at-large members.
"Part of our job is to listen to what people are saying," Bessel said. "We heard from and read a lot of comments from people who were very upset with three or four members of the Council who are from Takoma Park.”
“At least three live within a couple of blocks of each other,” Bessel claimed.
In reality, the three council members live within a couple of miles of each other.
“And then Mr. Hucker, District 5, lives in Silver Spring, awfully close to Takoma Park."
"The County Council is on the right track in that they are discussing whether or not to do away with the at-large seats and make all of the districts smaller and more responsive to the voters," said Montgomery County Republican Central Committee Chairman Dick Jurgena. "I think it's best if the elected officials are close to the voters."
The Charter Review Commission, which is responsible for making changes and recommendations to the County Council, is made up of 11 County citizens. The County Council appoints six commissioners and the County Executive appoints five, according to a County website. No more than six members can come from the same political party.
Each of the nine members of the County Council is elected by voters every four years.
Five Council members represent individual districts: Roger Berliner, District 1; Craig Rice, District 2; Sidney Katz, District 3; Nancy Navarro, District 4; and Tom Hucker, District 5. The remaining four Council members, George Leventhal, Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen, hold AtLarge seats. They represent all of Montgomery County's 1.1 million constituents. Leventhal, Elrich and Riemer all live in Takoma Park.
On Oct. 6, the Charter Review Commission held a public hearing to receive input from more constituents. About 50 people attended.
Bessel said Montgomery County Charter Review Commission members have discussed refiguring County Council districts and eliminating some or all the at-large seats multiple times in the past.
Riemer, who is running for reelection, said he believes constituents have better representation by Council members with At-Large members on the Council.
"I think people need to think carefully and proceed carefully," Riemer said. "The thing about at-large Council districts is you get more representation. You have more Council members at your beck and call. People should consider whether they'll get better services if they have fewer Council members responding to their interests."
Of the reported complaints by up-county residents who said they are under-represented, Riemer said every community is challenged to have a strong voice.
"The way the government works is you get involved, and when you get involved government responds better," Reimer said.
Charter Review Commissioner Jonelle Williams said he is in favor of changing the current configuration of the Council.
"Why do we need four At-Large Council members when we have single member districts as well?" Williams asked. "I think we need to reduce the amount of At-Large seats down to two - one in the up-county and one in the down-county. Even if we go with four at-large seats, they need to be divvied up into four quadrants in the County so they can be accountable to those residents."
Williams said when people have problems in the County, the tendency is to call their individual district members when reaching out to the Council.
"If something happens in your district, who are you going to call to address that particular issue," Williams said. "Are you going to call your single member district member, or are you going to call four at-large members? It doesn't make any sense."
The Charter Review Commission has until May 2018 to offer final recommendations to the County Council. The Council can either approve the recommendations and place the measure on the 2018 ballot, amend them and accept them or reject them altogether.
Due to a 2016 voter referendum, elected County officials may now only serve three, four-year terms. Leventhal, Elrich and District 1 Councilmember Roger Berliner, who are term-limited, are running for County Executive Ike Leggett's seat, which is also term-limited.
Bessel said the charter commission will next meet on Nov. 8 at 8 a.m. in Rockville.
"It's open to the public," Bessel said. "Anyone is welcome."