Jim worked tirelessly as an activist for decades, working closely with Wayne Goldstein and then continuing as chair of the Civic Fed’s Planning and Land Use Committee members. He kept us informed on all things planning and zoning, and worked closely with our civic associations and HOA members, working, and sometimes fighting, to maintain the quality of life we enjoy in our neighborhoods. Thank you, Jim. You will be sorely missed in these pages.
The Civic Fed has been working to better county government for almost 90 years. In the 1940s and 1950s our members worked to institute the County Charter and Executive/Council form of government we have today. But, is this form of government still working? At the time there were vehement opinions on both sides of the issues. An early article in the National Municipal Review, from December 1944, on the proposed Charter government, by John F. Willmott, the Research Chairman of the ‘Montgomery County Charter Commission’ stated that, “During recent years the county government has been in large measure controlled by a county boss and a tight little machine. The spoils system has operated brazenly. There is no effective budget system or other device for financial planning or coordination of activities.” And, “On at least one occasion interested citizens who sought to find out from a leading member of the legislative delegation what local bills were under consideration at Annapolis were told blandly: “I don’t know.”
Mr. Willmott recounts the history of the Charter movement, praising a very active Civic Fed for pushing for an independent study, conducted by the Brookings Institution in 1941, and the establishment of the Charter Commission, in 1942. After numerous political battles, the Charter system was established and with it, the authority to pass laws, which was previously limited to the state legislature, devolved to the County. The Charter set up the County Council system, getting rid of the Commissioners, and establishing a County manager. Home rule was born. The Charter was first adopted at the general election of November 2, 1948. The original charter proposal had a 5/2 composition: five of the seven members represented specific geographic districts; and two members were at large. Voters could vote for any seven candidates, much like our Board of Education election system today.
The Charter is reviewed by a Charter Review Commission during even-numbered years and one issue that comes up repeatedly is whether the ‘At-large’ councilmember system is an effective representation of our county residents. Is it? Or, have we gone back to a system where, as Mr. Willmott wrote 70 years ago, “the county government [is] controlled by…a tight little machine.”
In the elections and in the deliberations of the county council we see the results of what do seem to be control by ‘a tight little machine.’ Most of the council decisions are decided by unanimous vote, with the real deliberative discussions held offstage. In some cases, residents can actually witness councilmembers in public sessions holding whispered conversations on the dais before remarks are made and votes taken. Is that whispered conversation the real debate?
And, partly in response to this situation, voter turnout in the last Primary election was 17 percent of registered voters. Turnout for the General election was not much better, the third lowest in the state, at a dismal 39 percent. So, is that the voters whispering back?
Why did registered voters not vote? People I spoke with said they were voting, ‘No,’ and ‘None of the Above.’ Others told me, ‘there is no choice, so why vote?’ Or, as Emma Goldman famously said, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Why do people in this county go to the trouble of registering, but then decide not to vote? It is time for an independent study. We would like to see the council contract with an independent consultant, through an open bid process, to conduct a study on this issue and answer the question, why don’t people in this “progressive, activist” county vote? That is the first step on the road towards a real democracy, and not control by a ‘tight little machine.’
And, should we change our ‘representative’ system so it is more Direct Democracy than ‘representative?’ This writer thinks so.
The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent formal positions adopted by the Federation. To submit an 800-1,000-word column for consideration, please send an email with an attachment to firstname.lastname@example.org.