Charter Commission Ponders Change in Council Setup

The Montgomery County panel tasked with reviewing the mechanics of county government is mulling proposals to scrap the County Council’s current setup of four at-large members and five district members.

“It will affect the county in a really big way if these changes take place,” said Paul Bessel, who chairs the Charter Review Commission.

Part of the reason for the change rests in that the council now has three members from Takoma Park: at-large councilmembers Marc Elrich, George Leventhal and Hans Riemer.

The city of less than 18,000 is well-known for its left-leaning politics, and other parts of county don’t feel adequately represented, said Bessel, a retired lawyer who lives in Leisure World.

“Considering how the vote on term limits went, voters might want to change the structure of the council,” he said. “There’s seems to be antagonism for the council as it is now.”

Montgomery County voters overwhelmingly passed term limits in the 2016 vote with nearly 70 percent in favor and 30 percent against. With its passage, the county executive and the nine County Council members are limited to three consecutive terms.

The commission now is considering two proposals: One would have two at-large members and seven district members; the other would have nine district members, Bessel said.

Now, at each council election, each voter chooses four at-large members and one district member, giving each voter a chance to vote for a majority of the nine-member council.

“A lot of people think it hasn’t worked out the way they want it to,” Bessel said.

The commission would plan a public hearing in September or October, and then make a recommendation in April of next year, he said. The council would then decide whether the proposal would end up on the 2018 ballot. If it does, voters would get to decide on whether to restructure the County Council.

“And things could stay the way it is,” Bessel said. “But our group thinks there should be a change. … I can’t think of a single person that says let’s leave it the way it is.”

The major points in the timeline are months away — the hearing hasn’t been scheduled, and the commission’s recommendation isn’t due until next year.

No commission proposal would change the constitution of the council during the 2018 election. But a proposal will come forward during the thick of the party primaries, prompting debate among candidates.

Any proposal, even the status quo, will be riding on the arrival of the 2020 census.

Although three years away, leaders on Capitol Hill are questioning whether the federal government is ready to complete the decennial headcount, which not only decides how services are apportioned, but also provides the data for new congressional, legislative and council district boundaries.

The Charter Review Commission is thinking about proposals on how to reconstitute the panel that draws up council districts. Now, the Democratic and Republican central committees each offer eight names, and the council selects four from each list. One more is appointed who is presumably objective, Bessel said.

The current process has no support on the commission, Bessel said.

If the council chooses to make no changes, a citizen could launch a signature-collection drive to put the change on the ballot, as activist Robin Ficker did with the term limits proposal, Bessel said.

“He has every right to do it. It just takes a lot of standing by supermarkets to do it,” Bessel said.

The 11-member commission now has one vacancy. Bessel said he hoped the opening is filled before the commission votes on a recommendation to the council. However, if the panel splits 5-5, the commission would present the views of each side, Bessel said.

The commission meets monthly in the Council Office Building, in Rockville.

By the way, Bessel had his own proposal for the council: four two-member districts with one at-large member who would serve as the council president. Now the council picks its own president who serves a year. In this scenario, voters would get just one vote, so the second-place finisher would win a seat.

Bessel said he concocted the proposal to increase representation from minorities, including Republicans.

No other member of the commission liked the idea, so he said he’ll choose one of the other proposals.

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Douglas Tallman

About Douglas Tallman

Reporter with 35 years experience throughout Maryland. Reach me at or via Twitter at @MCM-Doug


2 Responses to “Charter Commission Ponders Change in Council Setup”

  1. Avatar
    On July 16, 2017 at 9:29 am responded with... #

    I agree with the premise of this article that the current system is not working. I have heard on more than one occasion, Councilmember’s lament the fact they have a difficult time representing both an urban and a rural constituency.

  2. Avatar
    On October 19, 2017 at 10:58 am responded with... #

    When i lived in downtown Bethesda, I felt completely unrepresented. The council seemed to think the entire area should be bulldozed and sold to developers for hideous highrises. Now I live in East Bethesda, and again, there is no one on the council or planning board who represents our community. The highrises are coming, with no amenities or services to the existing community. We have to change the composition of the council so we have a representative, ideally one who is pro-smart development, nit just pro-high rise.

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