They didn’t like them too much, but the County Council approved placing two County Charter amendments on the ballot for November, and granted provisional approval to a third pending the results of a petition drive.
The charter is essentially the county’s constitution. The Council also rejected two amendments proposed by the Charter Review Commission.
The three amendments that received an affirmative vote came to the Council as a result of voter petitions. Councilmember George Leventhal (D-At Large) proposed putting them on the November ballot in spite of personal opposition to them. “Despite my strong opposition, I do believe it should be placed on the ballot,” he said.
Two of the amendments were proposed by Robin Ficker, former legislator and perennial candidate.
One, if adopted will forbid the County Council from increasing property taxes by more than the increase in the Consumer Price Index (the rate of inflation).
Currently, the Council can only exceed the inflation rate if seven of the nine members of the Council believe it is necessary.
Leventhal ripped into Ficker, who has proposed similar amendments in the past. “He has sought to persuade voters to wreck our budget process,” he said.
Councilmember Michael Subin feared that putting such restrictions on the Council’s taxing authority would result in catastrophic cuts to county services. “It would wreck our schools. It would wreck our police. It would wreck our libraries,” he said.
Subin voted against all three of the proposed amendments, saying that were they to pass they would be disastrous to the county and that the Council should not risk their passage. “I will not bend to the misplaced, bloated ego of one person,” he said, pleading with his colleagues not to place the measure on the ballot. “Stand tall. Tell him ‘No.’ For the sake of our children. For the sake of this county,” he said.
The proposal to include the amendment on the ballot passed 7-2 (Subin and Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) against).
FICKER’S OTHER amendment would impose a limit of three consecutive terms on Councilmembers and the county executive, effective in 2006.
The current county executive, Doug Duncan (D) is the only county executive to be elected to three terms since the office was created in 1970.
If the term limits were to be enacted, Councilmembers Subin (currently in his fifth term) and Marilyn Praisner (D-4) (currently in her fourth term) would not be permitted to run for Council in the 2006 election.
Councilmembers Steve Silverman (D-At Large) and Phil Andrews (D-3) are both in their second term. Howard Denis (R-1) was a mid-term replacement and is in his second term, but his first full one.
Councilmembers Leventhal, Floreen, Michael Knapp (D-2) and Tom Perez (D-5) are each in their first term.
The Council reluctantly approved this measure as well. Leventhal noted the frequency with which incumbents are defeated in Montgomery County. “I don’t believe we have, in this county, a problem with voters lacking awareness or savvy,” he said.
Others agreed. “The three of us at this end of the table all defeated longtime incumbents,” said Council Phil Andrews (D-3) referring to himself and Councilmembers Knapp and Praisner.
The amendment was placed on the ballot by an 8-1 vote (Subin).
The final amendment was granted provisional approval. The Montgomery County Civic Federation is circulating a petition to make all nine Council seats into district seats, doing away with the four at-large Council seats.
Advocates of the charter amendment have yet to submit the 10,000 signatures necessary to place this proposed amendment on the ballot, and must do so by close of business on August 9.
Councilmembers also expressed opposition to the concept of nine districts with no at large members, but approved pending certification of the necessary number of signatures.
Councilmembers point out that this change will fundamentally restructure representation on the Council. Leventhal pointed out that currently each citizen of the county has the opportunity to vote for five Councilmembers, a majority.
The change would allow voters only to select one.
“The voters in Montgomery County deserve to have more choices,” Leventhal said.
Praisner proposed an amendment to add a sentence to the ballot question stating: “Eliminate each voter’s ability to vote for a majority of Councilmembers by reducing from five to one the number of Councilmembers each voter can vote for.”
She did lament the poor grammar in ending a sentence with a preposition.
The amendment was approved 6-3 (Andrews, Perez and Denis against). Those in opposition felt that the additional sentence was prejudicial. “I think it does amount to editorializing,” Andrews said.
The ballot passed 8-1 (Subin).
Subin noted that he was voting against them all because he believed that the Councilmembers have discretion about whether or not they are obligated to place petition-driven amendments on the ballot.
If the definitions in state election law were made clearer, he said, and it was determined that the Council was obliged to include the initiatives, he would have voted for them.