From an Up-County Resident in Montgomery County, Maryland.
As many of you know, because you signed the petition, there is a ballot initiative underway to restructure the county into 9 distinct council seats each with its own elected council member eliminating the 4 “at large” positions. This is an initiative that was born from a non-partisan effort to try and bring more accountability and responsiveness to that part of MoCo designated “UP-County.” What you may not know is that the representation on the council lives in that part of the county known as the Takoma Park and Silver Spring “triangle,” thereby limiting their ability to live and perhaps work among the constituents they claim to represent.
Below is an article written by Adam Pagnucco, a long-time observer of MoCo politics, and Paul Bessel published in the blog, “Seventh State.” It lays out the case for not changing the current makeup and distribution of the county council. In fact, he takes exception to a move by the council to offer their own alternative to the 9-district solution so that voters might have a choice when voting in November. I think it’s important to look at this article closely to understand what is being proposed and how it might affect the way voters view the recommendations it offers.
The article is titled “The MoCo Council Structure Should Not Be Changed” and opens with the following:
“With due respect to the members of the MoCo Council, I believe they made a mistake when they voted to put on the ballot the issue of adding 2 District Council Members. We do not need more Council Members and the voters benefit greatly from the current structure.”
This is a position that I believe those who want to see a change can support. The Council’s efforts here are a measure designed to obfuscate the real issue and to try to convince the voters that they are being fairly represented. Further, I agree we do not need two more council members and staff and all the costs that come with such an expansion. But here is were we must part ways with Mr. Pagnucco and Mr. Bessel because they go on to say:
“The item on the ballot by petition, to eliminate At Large Members and have 9 District Members, is even worse for our citizens. The argument that we want to give voters choices is wrong. The vast majority of voters don’t care about the Council structure. They care what the Council does, not its structure.”
Besides the fact that the assumption that “giving voters a choice is wrong” strikes me as not being very supportive of our system of government “by the people”… the notion that “[T]he vast majority of voters don’t care about the Council structure” but rather “what the Council does” are tied together and are not standalone issues to be casually tossed aside. It is by its very nature HOW the Council is structured that ultimately determines what the Council DOES; they cannot be separated.
There is clear evidence that over the years the development of the county has been focused on those areas that are inhabited by the members of the Council (e.g., Silver Spring, Takoma Park, Bethesda) and UP-County has become the place where developers can off-set their Section-8 housing and development requirements; where water run-off requirements can be shifted to and solar panels erected so as not to disrupt the development of “Down-County.”
We can see the results of this disproportionate representation every election cycle… those candidates for the Council At-Large positions will make themselves known in such far corners of the County such as Poolesville, Darnstown, Clarksburg, Beallsville, Boyds, Barnesville, and Damascus. But for the 4 years between elections it is difficult to recall when the council held a “town hall” meeting in Poolesville, Boyds, or Clarksburg. These places just disappear from the radar for all manner of county requirements and interactions. For example, Poolesville has advocated for a new High School that could be combined with a Senior Center and a County Police Substation to service a remote and dispersed section of the County. This has been a long-standing issue with that part of the county.
Pagnucco says: “[E]liminating At Large Members would be even worse. If a citizen lived in a district where her or his District Member didn’t care much about constituent service (it happens!) they would have no one to turn to, while now they have 4 others who represent them.” Well, that appears to be the case with District 1. An ineffective Council Member and nowhere else to turn. Perhaps the size of the District is to expansive or the current Council member is just not interested in what is going on in the Ag Reserve… in either case the problems of Poolesville have persisted for years. This can be verified by speaking to the local government in Poolesville. So it is viable to assume that if District One were to be subdivided into a smaller District and that the citizens of the Poolesville area elected a “local” to the Council it would not be unreasonable that they would at least have a voice — that might possibly be heard. After all what do the residents the Poolesville and the Ag Reserve and the residents of Bethesda and Potomac have in common other then they all live in MoCo.
The blog goes on to address “the issue of Council structure has been studied in detail by 5 separate Charter Review Commissions and ALL recommended that there should continue to be 4 At Large and 5 District Members. That allows each county voter to vote for a majority of the Council Members and to turn to 5 different representatives when they wish.”
But like so many other things that happen in Montgomery County, the demographics change and the needs and the wants of the citizens change right along with the county itself.
I myself have lived in MoCo for 30 years and I have seen the changes and I have recognized the inequity of the way the Council has for years concentrated its attention and dollars to those areas they can most benefit from, even if its just a road that will increase their own property value. This is not an indictment of any one person or member of the Council, but there is no objection to the “Purple Line” but enormous push-back on I-270 improvements that would help to relieve Up-County congestion.
Perhaps a resident of Clarksburg sitting on the Council would see this differently.
Pagnucco tells us that, “[A]dding members to the Council will cost a lot of money: Council Member salaries, staff salaries, reconstruction of the Council building. What would be gained? Nothing. The 9 Council Members do all the work needed”. Again no argument – so if we already have the 9 members with offices and staff and the proposal is to simple redraw some lines on the county map and reapportion the 9 council members in a more equitable and representative manner if that is what the citizens want — what could possibly be the objection.
“There is no need to tinker with the Council structure. There is no need to put any questions about this on the ballot. The current structure works well. Leave it alone.”
No Mr. Pagnucco… over 15,000 citizens of MoCo feel differently. With all due respect you do not get to decide this issue for the citizens of the Montgomery County. It will be on the ballot in November, the electorate will be further educated on the issue and We The People will decide how we want our County Council to be structured and how we want to be represented on the Council… after all I think you would agree — IT’S THE AMERICAN THING TO DO!