Written Testimony on Charter Review Amendments
Statement by Sharon L. Cohen to the
Montgomery County Council Regarding the Charter Review Commission’s 2018
Recommendation and the Minority Report Recommendation
July 10, 2018
Good afternoon. I am Sharon Cohen, a life long resident of Montgomery County Maryland. I serve on the Executive Board of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, but I speak solely on my own behalf today and in strong support of the Minority’s Report recommendation that, “now is the time to consider changing the make up the County Council by having more smaller and more responsive council districts.” Yes, now is the time to eliminate all At-Large County Council seats and then redraw the nine Councilmatic seats to represent contiguous, smaller, similar and like-minded communities.
Last year, Charter Review Commission (CRC) Chairman Bessel said it best in a September 1st Washington Post article,“The current structure of the council allows overrepresentation by some parts of the county. Three council members are from Takoma Park, and another lives very close to Takoma Park.”
Overrepresentation by any one part of the County on our Council is inappropriate. It discriminates against citizens in the underrepresented parts of the County.
The 4 At-Large seats now allow for nearly half (45%) of the County Council’s voting power to come from Takoma Park and a nearby community. Adding, County Council District 5 to the 4 At-Large seats means that nearly 56% of the Council’s voting power comes from this geographic area of the County. The overrepresentation of Takoma Park and nearby communities on the County Council drowns out the views and voter interests of other parts of the county, especially those of rural and up county voters.
Let us be honest, even the current Council district lines are drawn in such a way as to dilute the views of voters and the responsiveness of Council members. In District 1, the down county urban voters in Bethesda/Chevy Chase drown out the views of those up county, rural voters in District 1 from places like Poolesville and Boyds.
Voters in Montgomery County are NOT satisfied with their elected officials. In 2016, voters passed by nearly 70% a ballot question to term limit county elected officials. The term limit vote speaks volumes in terms of the voters’ demand to be heard and to be represented by someone who will listen!
Now let’s look at how many candidates – at least on the Democrat side – ran for one of four At Large spots to be a nominee for the 2018 General Election. Incredibly, 33 candidates ran and that is just counting Democrat candidates. This huge number of candidates is somewhat shocking.
There seems to be an overwhelming interest in running At-Large rather seeking office to actually represent the voters in ones’ own distinct on the County Council. Why were so many 2018 candidates for local office NOT truly interested in representing the interests of their actual district? Those eventually elected At-Large in 2018 may or may not originate from one concentrated geographic area of the County as they now are; but that possibility should be avoided in the future. The way to prevent future overrepresentation by any single geographic area of the county can be achieved through the elimination of the At-Large Council seats.
I also want express my outright opposition to both CRC-recommended Charter changes pertaining to the selection of Redistricting Commissioners and voting for property tax increases.
Eliminating the role of recognized county party Central Committees in the nomination of members to the Redistricting Commission would leave in the hands of the County Council members themselves the exclusive right to hand pick their surrogates to serve on this important body. Those handpicked surrogates then could redraw the district lines that best suit the sitting Council members. How convenient. This is akin to allowing the fox to guard the hen house!
The April 30th letter from the CRC to the County Council which conveyed the CRC’s 2018 report specifically states that there is “no guarantee” that “any Central Committee will be able to have representation” on the Redistricting Commission. Currently, each county party central committee receiving at least 15% of the vote – realistically the Democrat and Republican parties – each provide a list of 8 vetted nominations to the Redistricting Commission to the County Council from which the County Council chooses 4 individuals from each party’s submitted list to serve. The County Council then picks an additional member of their own choosing to serve on the Commission. Under the current Charter structure, in essence both the Republican and Democrat parties are guaranteed at least four of the nine seats with vetted nominees.
Going from a guarantee of at least 4 members from each of the major parties nominated by the duly elected party central committees, to the CRC’s recommendations is totally unacceptable because it entirely eliminates the rights of any minority party in the redistricting process. The recommendation is deficient for two reasons: it shifts all power in deciding who serves on the Redistricting Commission to the County Council (which currently is 9 Democrats to 0 Republicans), and provides NO real protection of minority party rights in the redistricting process.
This is NOT a minor Charter change. Instead this change is the total abrogation of party rights, especially minority party rights given the Council’s carte blanche power to select any Commissioners of their choosing up to four from one party. This CRC-recommended Charter change could entirely quash ALL participation in the redistricting process by Republicans vetted and recommended by our duly elected County Party structure.
The CRC needs to go back to the drawing board on this matter. Entirely eliminating the rights of an established party central committee in this process and shifting it entirely to the County Council -- which has 100 percent controlled by one party at this time -- is unacceptable. If the County Council were 100% Republican, would Democrats what a future Redistricting Commission handpicked ONLY by the Republican Council Members? I doubt it. Further, allowing for the participation of other so-called parties – that rarely field candidates for office -- in this process is NOT an adequate justification for this Charter amendment.
I also strongly oppose the proposed Charter change regarding how many votes are required by the County Council to increase our property taxes above the Charter limit (above the growth in CPI). The CRC argues that if there is a Council vacancy and if there is a crisis of some sort, that the current Charter language could prevent the Council from acting. This is a hypothetical situation but it’s a false analysis. The ONLY thing the Council could NOT do in this hypothetical situation is raise property taxes above CPI. But the Council nevertheless could still take other actions. The Council could cut, delay or otherwise temporarily suspend spending for programs until which time the Council vacancy is resolved or the economic crisis has passed.
Further, the CRC argues that adopting an “all current” approach allows for the number of County Council membership to grow beyond the current number of nine seats. This again is a hypothetical -- and I say made up – rationale. At any time in the future if the number of County Council seats were either increased or decreased it would be obvious that any place in the Charter with the outdated number of Council seats would need to be modified therein. Any sound legal drafter would know to include “conforming amendments” to the Charter at the time when the number of Council seats is amended. There is NO need to make such Charter changes now on the PROSPECT that a future Charter change modifying the number of Council seats may occur. This rational for amending the Charter tax cap is a total red herring.
The County Council recently increased property taxes by almost 9%, significantly above the growth in CPI because of a “crisis”. The Council’s pattern of over spending, floating bonds to finance massive capital projects, and lower than expected tax revenue ran into a buzz saw: the potential for a lowering of the County’s bond rating. The County Council could NOT allow the bond rating to drop, as that would have prevented them from borrowing even more money to spend. This crisis was frankly self-inflicted due to the Council’s very own spending patterns.
So no, we should NOT accept some hypothetical future scenario of a Council vacancy, or larger number of Council member seats and concurrent economic crisis that renders the Council incapable of taking any action other than raising property taxes. Frankly, if this is a real concern the Council should maintain a reserve fund in a lock box for such situations, or develop a list of programs/project that could be cut or for which spending could be delayed to weather such a scenario.
And finally, what does “all current Council members” mean in the proposed Charter amendment? If one Council member was ill and hospitalized or otherwise incapacitated, would “current Council members” mean those present and capable of voting at the time a tax increase in excess of CPI growth is considered? If yes, then it would NOT be a unanimous vote of all currently elected Council members. If the “all current” means all currently elected, but one was incapacitated (not a vacancy per se), then the “all current” members of the Council could NOT vote to approve the measure as in this situation a unanimous vote is not achievable. Is not this later scenario the same situation the CRC wants to avoid by swapping out 9 with “all current?” In other words, the proposed Charter change does not resolve the problem the CRC seeks to address if the unanimous vote of all currently elected Council members is to be maintained.
In closing, I point out that a significant number of County Council members are term limited and not eligible to run for reelection. Consequently, I believe the recommended Charter changes regarding how Redistricting Commissioners are selected as well as those made regarding the number of Council members required to increase our property taxes over the Charter limit (above the growth in CPI) should be opposed out right and not put on the 2018 General Election ballot, but at a minimum held over for the next County Council to consider.
“Should the Montgomery County Council change?” by Paul M. Bessel, September 1, 2017, Washington Post.
“Montgomery weighs changes to council to counter outsize presence from Takoma Park,” by Rachel Siegel, July 25, 2017, Washington Post.