Voters wanting change in the Maryland suburbs got it Tuesday: Montgomery County approved a term limits initiative, and Prince George’s County added two at-large members to the county legislature.
The term limits referendum, which passed with 69 percent to 31 percent of the vote, has been a contentious issue over the past couple of decades in Montgomery County. The measure, which imposes term limits of three, four-year terms or partial terms on council members and the executive, was resoundingly defeated in the 2000 and 2004 general elections.
The first two failed attempts were spearheaded by conservative activist and lawyer Robin Ficker.
This time, Mr. Ficker had help from unlikely allies: Democrats frustrated by overdevelopment, a 9 percent property tax increase and a council that voted to raise member salaries to $130,000 a year.
Mr. Ficker was unavailable for comment, but on WAMU’s “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” on Wednesday, he called the victory a way to “see that you can achieve peaceful change through the legal and electoral process.”
He said the referendum proved that voters are dissatisfied with many of the council’s longest-serving members and wanted more ideological diversity on the panel.
“I think that people voiced the idea that voters should not be treated as an ATM by the council as they were when they got a 9 percent property tax increase,” Mr. Ficker said. “The council should not be self-serving, as it was when they voted themselves a 30 percent pay increase. We need new ideas. We need fresh ideas.”
Term limits will have a major effect on the makeup of the council come 2018. Four members won’t be able run for re-election — Marc Elrich, Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal, all longtime at-large members; and Roger Berliner, the District 1 member. All nine members of the County Council are Democrats.
County Executive Isiah Leggett also would be banned from another term, but he already has said he is not seeking re-election. Mr. Leventhal also has said he won’t run in 2018.
The passage of the measure caught some by surprise. Council member Nancy Navarro and Ms. Floreen, who serves as council president, predicted the referendum would fail. Ms. Navarro said term limits aren’t needed because voters can choose other candidates at the ballot box.
During an October debate on News Channel 8 Ms. Floreen got personal, calling out Mr. Ficker for his six failed local and national campaigns.
“Here’s an idea. Why don’t we have a rule against people running for office too frequently?” Ms. Floreen said.
Term limits aren’t unheard of in the region but are the exception, generally.
Since 1992, Prince George’s County has limited its executive and council members to two, four-year terms. That was challenged in 2014 with a ballot measure that would have extended the limit to three terms. The referendum was defeated.
D.C. residents in 1994 voted to impose term limits on lawmakers, but the City Council struck down that measure.
In Prince George’s County, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that will add two at-large seats to the County Council. Unofficial results from the county’s Board of Elections show it passed 66 percent to 34 percent.
The initiative will increase the number of council members from nine to 11. The at-large seats would represent the nearly 900,000 county residents as a whole rather than a specific district within the county.
Proponents of the referendum said the at-large seats would give the county a larger profile in the region.
For County Council Chairman Derrick Leon Davis, the two new seats will give the county more economic weight in the region since at-large members can think about the county as a whole, while district representatives often have to put their smaller constituencies first.
“This is the ideology of regionalism versus parochialism,” Mr. Davis told The Washington Times. “When fighting over pennies, you can’t go fight for dollars. If nine individuals are fighting for specific things, then who is fighting regionally?”
But opponents of the measure have said the two new seats would simply be a way for current council members who are approaching their term limits to run for third and fourth terms.
In Prince George’s County, council members can serve only two consecutive terms, but under the charter amendment, anyone would be able to run for an at-large seat even if he or she had served term limits as district representatives. Currently, five council members are serving their second terms.
Before the vote, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III signaled his support for the two additional countywide seats.
Mr. Davis also said the at-large seats would bring the county more in line with the other large jurisdictions in the region.
The use of at-large seats is split among the surrounding counties in Maryland and neighboring District of Columbia. In Montgomery County, which is home to just over 1 million residents, five council members are elected to district seats and four members hold at-large seats.
The District also uses the at-large system. Its council has eight members representing wards in the city, an at-large chairman and four at-large members to represent the city’s nearly 660,000 residents. Smaller counties, including Howard and Anne Arundel, however, do not employ at-large members.