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How Big Should the Council Be?

Charter Review Commission debates major changes.

The way Montgomery County is governed could change dramatically if the Charter review Commission adopts one of the proposals it is considering.

The Commission, which is charged with reviewing the County Charter and recommending changes to it, is debating the merits of changing the make-up of the County Council.

The current Council consists of five district members and four at-large members. The district members each represent a section of the county, while the at-large members represent the county as a whole.

The commission is considering eliminating at-large seats and instead having nine district seats.

Many of the speakers at a Dec. 3 public forum agreed with this position. “The Montgomery County Civic Federation supports changing the County Council to nine single-member districts,” said Dale Tibbets of the federation.

Tibbets and others who were in favor of eliminating at-large seats believe that an at-large seat is too large a district for one person.

Tibbets pointed out that an at-large council seat has a larger jurisdiction than a U.S. Congressman. “[It] is the second-largest legislative jurisdiction in the state of Maryland, behind a statewide U.S. Senate seat,” he said.

Potomac resident John Young, a former candidate for state delegate for District 15, wants to see the size of the council increased to an 11-member body with eight district seats.

Young was one of the speakers to point out that there is little minority representation on the council. “The size of these [current] districts discourage most minority communities,” Young said.

The current council has two women and one Latino member, the other six members are white males.

Nancy Soreng of the League of Women Voters stated the league’s position which favors a council similar to the school board.

In the School Board, all members are elected at-large, but the seats each have a geographic residency requirement to ensure that various areas of the county are represented. However, the League prefers a small council.

“Therefore we oppose both expanding the number of council members and the addition of new councilmanic districts,” Soreng said.

Another proposal would give councilmembers a pay raise.

The current charter does not specify if being a councilmember is a full-time or part-time job. Several councilmembers do have other jobs, but typically put in more than 40 hours per week as councilmembers, said Commission Chair Kenneth Muir.

The Commission is considering designating being a councilmember as a full-time position. The pay would be increased from its current rate of approximately $72,000 per year, and outside employment would be restricted.

Speakers were split on this issue. “Pay them enough, maybe $100,000 so that they get full-time pay for full-time work and also prohibit outside employment,” said Wayne Goldstein of Kensington.

“I believe that council members should have a passion for public service and part-time positions help them to render public service to the community as well as allow them to function as council members,” said Potomac resident Tufail Ahmed.

The other measure being considered is essentially a response to Robin Ficker. Ficker, a former state delegate, has introduced multiple petitions to amend the County Charter, including two this year.

Currently, according to the state Constitution, residents need to get a petition with either 20 percent of registered voters or 10,000 signatures, whichever is smaller, in order to have their proposal appear on the ballot during the general election.

The commission notes that 10,000 is currently less than two percent of registered voters in the county, and that percentage is only going to get smaller. They propose to increase the number of signatures required.

In order for this proposed charter amendment to become law, the state Constitution would first need to be amended.

Residents who spoke on this issue were also split.

“The only basis for this seems to be a bad case of Fickeritis, an unwavering focus on thwarting Robin Ficker from his pleasurable pastime of challenging the government,” Goldstein said. “Raising the signature limit will thwart the occasional grass-roots effort that pops-up, but won’t deter Mr. Ficker in the least.”

“Amendments to the county charter should be signed by not less then 20 percent of the registered voters in the county,” Ahmed said.