HYATTSVILLE – No decisions will be made by the Hyattsville May 2 ballot referendum, but the city council is hoping to gain some insight on how residents feel about the size and composition of the council.
The council also got a taste of that feedback at a public hearing on April 17. The hearing was set specifically so residents could voice their opinions to the council on the “advisory” questions that will appear on the city’s election ballot.
Although only two residents spoke about the question, lively debate arose amongst the council on the logistics of a large council and the difficulties of planning meetings.
Mayor Candace Hollingsworth made the initial proposal of the ballot question and said she did so because she has seen and experienced difficulties associated with the size of the council, which stands at10 councilmembers and a mayor.
“The question of the size of the council, for me, honestly has very little to do with relationships and how well people get along with each other,” she said. “It’s more about, how can we best get work done?”
Hollingsworth specifically pointed to how having 10 councilmembers and a mayor put strain on the seven city employees in charge of fielding their requests.
The referendum resolution that will appear on the Hyattsville ballot is three questions, with the second question including four sub-questions about the preferred reduction.
Options under question two include reducing the number of councilmembers to one per ward, reducing the number of wards, doing both of those reductions, increasing the number of wards but having one councilmember per ward, or reducing the number of wards but keeping two councilmembers for each.
Councilwoman Shani Warner shared similar sentiments to the mayor, pointing out other issues, such as scheduling difficulties and time issues, that have arisen from having 11 people on the council.
“Since I’ve been on council, I’ve seen structurally the way how the size of our council fails us,” Warner said. “I know that I have unique perspective. Those of us on the dais have a perspective. It may be hard for us to convey that to the public, because what is useful for a councilmember is different from what residents may feel (is) in their best interest.”
Warner said the sheer size of the council is a “structural obstacle” and has led to factions, because the council does not “have to work together” to get legislation passed. She also said the council has a hard time putting together meetings on important decisions like department head hires.
On the other side of the issues, Nina Faye, a Hyattsville resident, said she would not want to see the council shrink.
“Our portion of Ward 3 has felt under-represented for a number of years and we feel that any reduction in council would lessen that,” she said. “And I feel very strongly, that to have adequate representation, it needs to remain as it is.”
Faye said to make the council smaller would be undemocratic, and some on the council agreed with her.
Councilman Thomas Wright said he does not believe efficiency should come at the cost of representation.
“We can be inefficient up here with, say, four of us, or we can be very efficient with, perhaps say, 14 of us. Efficiency can be maintained and controlled by perhaps effective leadership and civility,” Wright said, though he later said that was not directed at the current mayor.
Councilwoman Paula Perry and Councilman Robert Croslin expressed similar views. Perry said having two councilmembers has been an advantage for residents, especially if one of their representatives does not respond to queries or is hard to get ahold of. Croslin said a loss of members would also result in steeper learning curves for new councilmembers who would no longer have a seasoned partner.
However for Jim Menasian, who had previously asked the council for a strong debate on the issue, the timing of the debate is all wrong. He said he did not think the council provided enough time and detail for residents to make informed decisions when they take to the ballot box.
“It’s still too early for me to have an opinion and this (is) absolutely unheard of – me without an opinion,” he said. “How can I make an informed choice when I don’t know what’s up?”
Menasian pointed out that, in just three years, a new census will be taken and the city will have to analyze its population and possibly redistrict wards or even add wards. He wanted to know why decisions had to be made now when the size of the council could change with the census and the large number of housing developments going up across Hyattsville, including near the West Hyattsville Metro, on Route 1 and at the Kiplinger site.
“Don’t know yet, the people that will be in this city. Perhaps we will discover, down the road, that what we really need is an additional ward or two,” he said.
However, Hollingsworth said it was not her intention and Warner said it is unlikely that any action would be taken soon.
Still, Menasian said the residents of Hyattsville deserve more information on the issues before they vote.
“We still don’t know the facts. We don’t know the costs. We don’t know the benefits,” Menasian said. “Only after all of this can anybody make an informed choice.”