Tag Archives: Ballot Questions

What Will Happen to the County Council?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Conversations had been going on for a while, but when Nine Districts for MoCo announced that they had gathered 15,000 signatures for their charter amendment, things got real in a hurry. The county council faced a serious chance that they would get involuntarily restructured by angry voters at the ballot box.

Now they had to talk about alternatives.

A majority of the county council is content with the current council structure of five district seats and four at-large seats. They believe that a mix of district representation and countywide perspective serves residents best. It also does not escape them that a new structure of nine districts could complicate their plans for the next election. Of the six members who are not term limited, who would run for which seats in a nine district configuration?

Leaving a potential nine district charter amendment as the only council structure on the ballot would be a crapshoot. What if all the voters wanting change voted for it because it was the only change option on the ballot? So council members discussed placing an alternative charter amendment on the ballot that would be more palatable. What would it be? In devising their preferences, each council member had to consider three factors: what was best for the county (at least in their opinion), what could gather enough voter support to compete with nine districts and what was best for (or at least not injurious to) their own political futures. These being nine very different people at different points in their political careers, this was a very complicated conversation.

Two ideas rose to the top of discussion over the weekend.

Adding two council seats

Last year, At-Large Council Member Evan Glass told the county’s charter review commission (which studies charter amendments and makes recommendations to the council) that “more districts may be warranted.” Indeed, MoCo’s council districts have more than twice as many residents in them as the regional average. One topic of conversation centered on adding district seats with two being the most mentioned number. Another variant was adding one district seat and another at-large seat. Regardless of the nature of additions, this line of thought addressed the need for more seats (and districts) without disturbing the configuration of the existing council and its currently serving members.

Adding an elected council president

The Montgomery County Council does not have a four-year president elected to that position by voters. The District of Columbia, Baltimore City, and Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties have presidents or chairs who are elected at-large. In Anne Arundel, Arlington, Baltimore, Frederick, Howard and Prince George’s Counties, the council or board selects its own officers, which is the system MoCo currently uses.

With this option, two corollary questions were generated. First, would an at-large council president replace one of the current at-large seats or would it be a brand new additional seat? Second, would the term limit clock “reset” for council president? In other words, if a term-limited council member were to run for council president and win, would that person be entitled to a new set of three consecutive terms? In 2016, when Prince George’s County (which has council term limits of two terms) created two at-large seats to go with its existing nine district seats, the county’s charter language explicitly allowed district incumbents to serve two more consecutive terms if they won at-large seats. The question of how term limits would apply is not an academic one for the three term-limited council members currently in office – Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Hans Riemer.

The problem with the council president proposal is not so much on its merits but rather that it is unresponsive to the public discussion, which has focused on two questions: should there be more district seats and should the at-large seats be eliminated? To my knowledge, no mass constituency has come forward and said, “You know, our problems would be solved if we had a permanent council president.” How does this dissuade anyone from voting for nine districts?

As of this writing, it seems the most likely proposal from the council will be to add two more district seats with no elected council president. But the council will not make a decision until Tuesday and there could be more twists and turns on this than on a country road in a blizzard.

Finally, there is one more bizarre possibility: what if the Nine Districts proposal does not make it onto the ballot? The group claims to have 15,000 signatures but the county board of elections has until August 14 to certify them. The group needs to have 10,000 valid signatures for certification; otherwise, regardless of the group’s claims, their amendment will not qualify for the ballot. The county council, however, must decide what question(s) it will put on the ballot this week. And so it’s possible that a council proposal could make it onto the ballot while the Nine Districts proposal fails to qualify.

Regardless of how it all turns out, it seems there is a strong likelihood that change is coming to Rockville.


Nine Districts for MoCo Claims 15,000 Signatures

By Adam Pagnucco.

Nine Districts for MoCo, the group seeking to replace the current county council structure of 5 district seats and 4 at-large seats with 9 district seats, claimed earlier today that it has obtained 15,000 signatures for its proposed charter amendment. Under the state’s constitution, a charter amendment proposed by voters must receive valid signatures from not less than 20% of registered voters or at least 10,000 voters. The group’s Facebook post appears below.

The original deadline for receipt of petition signatures was Monday, July 27. However, the State Board of Elections extended the deadline by one week due to the COVID-19 crisis, meaning that the group may submit its signatures to the county on Monday, August 3. The county board of elections must then verify the signatures to ensure that the 9 district charter amendment qualifies for the ballot.

The group’s declaration was shared on Facebook by the Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Republican Club, the Republican District 16 Team, the Conservative Club of Maryland and former Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Mark Uncapher.


Ficker vs Friedson vs Elrich on Property Taxes

By Adam Pagnucco.

In an open meeting tomorrow, the county council will consider placing two charter amendments limiting property taxes on the ballot along with an amendment by Robin Ficker, which has already qualified. Let’s compare the three proposals – Ficker’s, one by Council Member Andrew Friedson and his colleagues on the council’s Government Operations Committee and one by County Executive Marc Elrich – to current law.

What would be limited?

Current charter limit: An annual growth limit is applied to the total dollar volume of real property tax collections.

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: A limit would be applied to the weighted average tax rate on real property.

Elrich: A limit would be applied to the real property tax rate but there is a lack of clarity on which rate. It could apply to the general property tax rate, which all county residents pay. Or it could apply to the weighted average tax rate, which includes both the general tax and many other smaller property taxes that are specific to function and/or geography. This issue needs to be decided one way or the other if this proposal appears on the ballot.

How would the limit be applied?

Current charter limit: The annual growth in the total dollar volume of real property tax collections is limited to the growth rate in the Washington-Baltimore consumer price index in the previous year. A few categories of property are exempted from this limit (notably new construction during the fiscal year).

Ficker: Same as current charter limit.

Friedson: The weighted tax rate on real property would not be allowed to increase without a unanimous vote of current council members.

Elrich: The property tax rate (whichever option is picked) would not be allowed to increase without a vote of two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Is there a waiver?

Current charter limit: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so.

Ficker: No. The limit on property taxes is absolute (subject to state law).

Friedson: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if all current council members vote to do so (as in current law).

Elrich: Yes. The limit may be exceeded if two-thirds (six) of the council members vote to do so.

Are there disproportionate impacts on different taxpayers?

Current charter limit: No.

Ficker: No.

Friedson: No.

Elrich: Yes. The taxable value of owner-occupied residential property would be allowed to increase at a maximum rate of 3% per year. Other types of property would not be subject to this limit.

Who wins and loses under each option?

That depends on who you are and what your interest in taxes is.

People who depend on county services (other than schools) lose the most under the Ficker amendment, which ties the growth in property tax receipts to the rate of inflation. Inflation is low and might even be negative this year. If the Ficker amendment passes, it will raise the possibility that property tax collections will screech to a halt with limited ways to deal with that.

Groups favoring tax increases gain the most from the Elrich amendment because it lowers the threshold of breaking the tax limit from all current council members to two-thirds (six) of the council members.

Homeowners might benefit from the Elrich amendment, which limits annual tax bill growth on their principal residences to 3%. However, council staff pointed out that the average annual growth in residential assessments exceeded 3% only twice in the nine-year period of FY11-19.

Owners of commercial property and renters of both residential and commercial property will be disadvantaged under the Elrich amendment because they won’t get the 3% growth limit that homeowners will. Over time, the tax burden will shift away from homeowners and onto commercial entities and renters – including residential renters. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Elrich amendment makes property tax increases easier as stated above.

For stakeholders in MCPS’s operating budget, the entire discussion is irrelevant. That’s because a change to state law in 2012 allowed counties to ignore charter limits for the purpose of dedicating funding to approved budgets of local school boards. Since state law trumps county charters, no charter amendment can stop the council from passing a dedicated tax for MCPS. The Elrich administration included such a dedicated tax in its recommended FY21 budget but the council opposed it.

Ficker’s amendment looks to be headed to the ballot because it received enough petition signatures to qualify. We shall see what, if anything, the council decides to put on the ballot along with it.


Nine Kings and Queens

By Adam Pagnucco.

Advocates of a nine-district county council in MoCo press on despite clear evidence that our at-large races have much more political competition than our district races. But there is no need to speculate about what a nine-district system would look like. For more than 30 years, a nine-district system was in use right next door to us in Prince George’s County. How did it work there?

Under Prince George’s County’s original charter in 1970, its county council had eleven members, all elected at-large. Five of them had to reside in one each of five districts while the other six could live anywhere in the county. The structure was quickly dominated by Democratic Party leaders who ran slates for state and county offices, but it began to disintegrate when non-slate members won races in 1978. In 1980, the county passed Question K, which replaced the old structure with 9 district-based council members who would be elected solely by voters in their districts. At the time, the Washington Post wrote:

With the council reduced from 11 to 9 members and its members elected from separate districts, there will be decidedly fewer countywide offices with which to form a slate. That was one goal that the amendment’s initiators — Republicans and Democrats who ran against the party slate in 1978 — intended. The supporters of K also said they designed the amendment to make the council more responsive to the electorate. Its opponents charged that the amendment will cause parochialism and an emphasis on district issues at the expense of the county.

Sound familiar?

The new structure was first used in 1982, which saw the defeat of numerous incumbents and power brokers. The system remained in place until 2016, when residents approved Question D to add 2 at-large members by a 67-33% vote. In 2018, a retiring district council member and a non-incumbent won the 2 new at-large seats, defeating seven other candidates including another retiring district council member and a former state delegate.

Another factor in Prince George’s elections are term limits, passed by voters in 1992. The county executive and county council members are limited to two consecutive four-year terms, though they can return after being out of office. Additionally, council members can serve two terms in district seats and then immediately run for two more terms in the at-large seats created in 2018. Prince George’s voters have rejected multiple attempts to repeal or extend term limits.

How well has the nine-district system promoted political competition in Prince George’s County?

The table below shows the distribution of the 60 county council elections held in Prince George’s from 1998 through 2018. Of those 60 elections, 32 were district races with an incumbent on the ballot, 22 were for open district seats, 5 were special elections for open district seats and one was an at-large election in 2018.

The first thing one notices is that the average number of primary candidates is much lower in races with incumbents (1.9) than in open seat district races (4.8) and special elections (6.6). The 2018 at-large race had 9 candidates.

Now let’s look at how incumbents fare in Prince George’s district races.

Fully half of the elections featuring an incumbent (16 of 32) had no opposition. Only 3 elections had an incumbent winning by less than 10 points. Ninety-one percent of the elections had an incumbent winning by 20 points or more or not having an opponent at all.

The combined record of incumbents running for reelection over the last two decades is 32-0.

Granted, elections work differently in Prince George’s and MoCo. Prince George’s politicians employ mixed slates of incumbent and non-incumbent state and county candidates who distribute sample ballots listing all of them. This gives incumbents, especially non-term limited state legislators, enormous influence in selecting and grooming new members of their political organizations. But the end result is not much different than in MoCo’s district council races since 1998, in which Democratic incumbents have an 18-1 record and regularly win blowouts.

The lesson from Prince George’s County is clear: in the context of all district seats, true competition usually only occurs when an incumbent does not run. Because Prince George’s limits incumbents to two consecutive four-year terms, that means true competition happens once every eight years for district seats (unless a vacancy occurs and a special election is held). In Montgomery County, which limits council members to three consecutive four-year terms, true competition would occur once every twelve years. That is a mammoth setback from MoCo’s at-large elections, which have at least some degree of competition in every primary and have sent three incumbents home.

The effect of electing nine candidates and then allowing them to face creampuff (or no) opposition for twelve years would be to create nine kings and queens. That is comparable to what happened in Prince George’s County except our monarchs would rule 50% longer. The NIMBYism and parochialism of the Prince George’s nine-district system even acquired a name – “council courtesy,” under which the other eight members nearly always accepted a member’s position on development in his or her district. With neither the county executive nor the planning board trumping the council on land use powers, the council members were unchallenged overlords inside their domains. Then-special election candidate (and future Council Member) Derrick Leon Davis explained how this works on Kojo Nnamdi’s show in 2011.

In politics, there are few things more dangerous than elected officials who face little or no competition. The risk of being hurled from office by pitchfork-wielding voters is one of the few safeguards protecting the people from politicians afflicted by greed, ego, malice, sloth or sheer incompetence. Nine-district advocates have legitimate grievances and the county could use more district council seats. But competition is a far better solution to our problems than the crowning of kings and queens.


MoCo Could Use More County Council Districts

By Adam Pagnucco.

Abolishing at-large county council seats is a really bad idea because it would eliminate most political competition in county elections. However, adding council district seats is justified. Relative to other large jurisdictions in the area, MoCo has few local legislators per capita and huge districts.

The table below shows the number of local legislators (city and county council members, supervisors and board members) per 100,000 residents for 13 major jurisdictions in the area. Elected officials of municipal governments inside those jurisdictions (like the city governments of Rockville and Gaithersburg) are not included.

Large jurisdictions in the region have an average of 1.5 local legislators per 100,000 residents. At 0.9, MoCo is on the lower end of this distribution. If MoCo were to have the regional average number of local legislators per capita, it would have a 15-member county council.

The table below shows the number of residents per local district. Two jurisdictions (Alexandria and Arlington) do not have districts as all local legislators are elected at-large. Three others (Anne Arundel, Baltimore County and Howard) have all district-based legislators. The others in the table have a mix of district and at-large members. Prince George’s County once had 9 district-based council members, but in 2016, residents approved Question D to add 2 at-large members by a 67-33% vote.

With over 210,000 residents per local legislative district, MoCo’s districts have more than twice the number of people as the regional average. Let’s bear in mind that council members typically have just the equivalent of 4 full-time staff members each. District council offices, which are the primary points of contact for constituent services, can easily get swamped by service requests during busy times. (When I worked at the council years ago, District 1 would easily generate the most constituent contacts, especially when there were power outages!) If MoCo were to emulate the regional average, the county would have 10 council districts.

And so if there is to be a structural change to the county council, it should not be abolishing at-large seats – a change that would eliminate most political competition for council. Rather, the at-large seats should be kept and the number of districts should be expanded. Such a system would be more expensive for taxpayers because it would add politicians and staff. But it might increase responsiveness to constituents and it would preserve electoral competition, two big benefits for MoCo residents.


Don’t Abolish the At-Large County Council Seats

By Adam Pagnucco.

Since 1990, the Montgomery County Council has had five district seats and four at-large seats. Every few years, proposals are made to get rid of the at-large seats and go to an all-district seat system. County voters rejected a ballot question doing so in 2004 by a 61-39% vote. The county is fortunate that they did because getting rid of the at-large seats is a terrible idea.

Why is that so?

The table below shows the outcome of council district races over the last six cycles, plus open seat special elections in 2002, 2008 and 2009.

Here is the distribution of outcomes in these contests.

The huge majority of these races are non-competitive when Democratic incumbents are on the ballot. In fact, a Democratic district incumbent has not been defeated since 1998, when challenger Phil Andrews door-knocked his way to victory against District 3 incumbent Bill Hanna. Since then, a challenger to a district incumbent has come within 10 points only twice. Democratic district incumbents have an 18-1 win-loss record since 1998, which includes 5 races with no opponent. In the last 10 races with district incumbents, the incumbents have won by 40 points or more 8 times.

Now let’s look at at-large council races since 1990.

There are four at-large council seats. In every cycle since the current system was instituted, there has been more than four at-large candidates, meaning there has always been competition. That has been true even in cycles in which all four incumbents were running (2010 and 2014). In three cycles (2002, 2006 and 2010), an incumbent was defeated. In 2018, an incredible 33 Democrats ran at-large when 3 open seats were available.

Public financing no doubt played a role in encouraging so many candidates to run at-large. In contrast, district races with incumbents in 2018 were sleepy aside from District 3, in which the incumbent used public financing and the challenger stayed in the traditional system. (The incumbent won.)

All of the above illustrates a central fact: at-large races with incumbents usually have much more competition than district races with incumbents. One reason for that is the nature of such elections. An at-large race is a beauty contest with the four most popular candidates winning. Negative campaigning is uncommon except when slates are present (as in 2002). But in a district race with an incumbent, a challenger must make the case that the incumbent has committed a firing offense; otherwise, voters tend to go with the incumbent. Most candidates stay clear of heavy-lifting negative campaigns, especially when they are likely to lose, and with rare exceptions (like 2018 District 3 challenger Ben Shnider) the best ones prefer to run at-large.

Political competition is precious. Decades of evidence from our elections shows that abolishing at-large council seats would destroy most political competition in council elections. That is a really bad idea.

That said, supporters of adding districts are not wrong. More on that tomorrow.


MCDCC Ballot Questions Meeting

MCDCC precinct officials who attend the ballot questions meeting on September 17th at 7pm will help decide the Montgomery County Democratic Party’s positions on ballot questions. The information says that hearings were held at an earlier meeting, so I assume that

The procedure for determining the party’s position is somewhat complicated. The precinct officials vote on each question after hearing the recommendations of the ballot questions committee. [UPDATE: The ballot questions advisory committee no longer makes recommendation. This is a positive change as its membership, and thus decisions, can be idiosyncratic. Thanks to Paul Bessel for the correction.] They can vote to take a position for, against, or no position. If a majority of Central Committee members disagree with an affirmative or negative position taken by the precinct officials, they can change the recommendation to no position.

The meeting will be held in the Maryland Room, Clubhouse 1, Leisure World (3700 Rossmoor Blvd, Silver Spring, MD 20906. Click here for Directions to the Meeting.) Note: Leisure World is a gated community so you’ll be stopped and have to explain why you’re going there if you don’t live in Leisure World.

The actual questions should be less heated than the last time around when the MCDCC took a position in favor of giving the police chief more flexibility in the management of police by eliminating effects bargaining. All members of the County Council supported this decision but the FOP and other government employee unions opposed it vehemently.

Click here to download the 2014 Ballot Questions Report
Click here for more information about the Sept. 17th Meeting.