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Votes

Signed, Sealed and Delivered

Petition drive successful, voters will decide in November.

Dan Wilhelm was happy to come in over budget. The current president of the Montgomery County Civic Federation carted a suitcase full of petitions up the stairs of the parking garage next to the Council office Building.

"We've got 12,500 signatures," he said. Only 10,000 were required to place the proposed Charter Amendment on the ballot.

The amendment is part of a drive by the Civic Federation to change the County Council. If approved by voters this November, the council will change from five district members and four at-large members to nine district members.

An At-Large member is elected by all of the voters of the county. Last week, the County council discussed the proposal, and the majority of the council is opposed to the measure.

Currently, point out Councilmembers, voters may cast ballots for five members of the council, so each resident of the county votes for and is represented by a majority of the council.

If the measure passes, they will be able to select only one. "I think it disempowers voters," said George Leventhal (D-At Large). "I don't see why a civic movement would want to do that."

"We believe this is the best way to get representative government for Montgomery County," said Dale Tibbitts, of the Civic Federation at a press conference prior to submitting the petition. "Only a U.S. Senator, in the state of Maryland, has a larger district among legislators."

Members of the Civic Federation say that the district is so large, that it requires taking contributions from moneyed interests, in particular developers and land use attorneys. "They can effectively buy those top seats," Tibbitts said.

In Prince George's County which has all district seats there is a move to create at-large seats, Wilhelm said. "Guess who's pushing that — the developers," he said.

At least one member of the county Council agrees. Phil Andrews (D-3) thinks the change is necessary. "I think it's the only way to reduce the excess of developer money," he said.

Andrews, who has a district seat, does not accept campaign contributions from development interests. He argues that it is possible for candidates in smaller districts to run competitive campaigns without the money. "They can knock on doors. They don't have to rely on big money to win," he said.

LEVENTHAL SAID that smaller districts will not necessarily mean cheaper campaigns. He points out that with smaller districts, the Republican party — which is in favor of the change — will be able to field competitive candidates in the smaller districts, something which is difficult for them to do in an at-large race in a majority Democratic county.

"The Republicans haven't had an at-large seat in years," he said. "The Republican Party is strongly supporting the Charter amendment because it believes it will have competitive candidates in district races."

As a result, the district campaigns will require more money than they have in the past. "You'll have a competitive primary and a competitive general election," Leventhal said.

Civic Federation members also assert that the districts will increase minority representation on the council. Currently Tom Perez (D-5) is the only minority on the council.

"Single member districts will afford the opportunity for greater diversity," said Fernando Bren, Potomac resident and past president of the Civic Federation.

Smaller districts will create districts with a greater percentage of minority voters, say members of the Civic Federation.

Andrews agrees with the Civic Federation on this point, as well. "You will increase the opportunity for an outsider to run successfully," he said.

Leventhal rejects this claim. Montgomery County, he said, does not have areas racial enclaves, and has been successful in promoting diversity. "We don' have specific minority neighborhoods," he said.

Further, he points out that only one African-American has served on the County Council in its history and that member, Ike Leggett was elected at large.

Leggett, currently state Democratic Party chair, however, supports the proposed change, said Bren.