Monday, November 3, 2014

Everyone's Weighing in on Prince George's Term Limits

Photo by DayofGlory
On Saturday, I urged my fellow citizens to Vote “No” on Question J this Tuesday, November 4. Question J is a local ballot measure that would allow current and future county executive and county council members in Prince George’s to serve up to three consecutive terms, totaling 12 years. The current limit is two terms, or eight years—and right now, Prince George’s is the only metro-area county that imposes any term limits on its legislators and executives.

Last evening, the Washington Post editorial board took a different view, urging county citizens to vote “Yes” on Question J. The Post editors argue that the current two-term limit, established by voters in 1992 and twice reaffirmed by them prior to this effort, was once a “useful…means to ensure infusions of new blood” in the county. But now, they claim, “the county has changed, and its rules should evolve too.” They see a county that is “more engaged than in the past” and that has elected a more capable crop of leaders.

As evidence of the county’s supposed change, the Post editors point to the recent defeat of incumbent Superior Court clerk Marilynn Bland in the Democratic primary election in June. They labeled Bland, a former two-term council member and board of education member, as “notoriously unethical” and celebrated her ouster as “the right way to set limits on elected officials.”

But by the Post’s own reporting, Bland has been a constant source of disdain and embarrassment for the county for most of her 18 years in public office. Yet, she was still easily reelected on multiple occasions to multiple offices. Indeed, she left her post as a county councilmember in 2010, only after the expiration of her second term—because of the current term limit provisions.

Other than the recent example with Bland, no other incumbent county elected official has been defeated at the polls in more than a generation. So it’s somewhat curious to see the Post hanging its hat on one aberrational result in a very low turnout primary election.

A few hours after the Post’s editorial endorsement, the Washington Times reported that the Question J ballot initiative is being largely funded by big developer interests. This is a particularly troublesome revelation, given the county’s long and sordid history of developer-fueled corruption, which sent the previous county executive, Jack Johnson, and his councilmember wife, Leslie Johnson, off to federal prison.

Joseph Kitchen, former president of the Prince George's Young Democrats, suggested that I and the other Question J opponents hadn't made a very convincing case against the measure, even through he too voted against Question J. Assuming that's true, I would argue that the proponents of Question J have made an even worse case for changing the status quo—especially given the Post's threadbare rationale coupled with the Times' findings regarding the heavy developer funding of this effort.

Please weigh in with your comments for or against Question J. More importantly, if you haven't already done so, please weigh in tomorrow, November 4, at the polls!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Extending Term Limits in Prince George’s is a Bad Idea

Just Say "NO" to Question "J"
When it comes to statewide and county elections, Prince George’s County has one of the lowest political participation rates in the State of Maryland. This year, greedy and self-centered incumbent public officials are seeking to take advantage of the county’s apathetic electorate by giving themselves a chance to stay in office for up to 12 years, instead of the current limit of 8 years. The citizens of Prince George’s County have the power to stop this attempted power-grab by voting “NO” on Question “J” this Tuesday, November 4.

State law establishes a 4-year term for county executives and county council members, but individual counties get to decide whether to establish limits on the number of consecutive terms those officials can serve. In 1992, the citizens of Prince George’s County amended their charter to establish a 2-term, 8-year maximum for county officials.

Almost immediately, county officials started trying to undo those limits. In 2000, the county’s first African American executive, Wayne Curry, worked with a young state delegate named Rushern Baker III to campaign for a repeal of term limits. That well-financed effort failed miserably, as did several other efforts—but that didn’t deter Curry’s young protégé from trying to undo the will of the people.

In 2010, Baker was elected as Prince George’s county executive. Earlier this year, he and the county council handpicked a “charter review commission” to recommended changes to the county’s charter. One of the commission’s recommendations was to extend the current 2-term limit provision to a 3-term limit, thereby allowing elected officials to serve a total of 12 consecutive years. The commission freely acknowledged that this was merely an interim measure, and that full repeal of term-limits was their ultimate goal.

To be clear: I don’t think term limits are always a good thing, particularly on the local level. Indeed, most of the other local governments in the Washington metropolitan region—including neighboring Montgomery County—operate without term limits. Also, in theory at least, the electorate always has the power to effectively impose a term limit on incumbents by simply voting them out of office and choosing another candidate at the next election.

And that’s exactly the argument that Baker and his allies on the council, like Council Chair Mel Franklin, have been advancing. “You don’t want them there? Kick their asses out,” Baker told a skeptical Democratic Central Committee crowd in September, as he pressured them into endorsing the proposal. “What this boils down to is whether you believe voters are mature enough to get rid of someone they are tired of.” Similarly, Council Chair Franklin argues that extending the term limits for Prince George’s officials will allow county officials the time needed to gain the experience necessary to become effective regional leaders.

Unfortunately, as Baker and Franklin know full well, arguments about voter choice don’t really resonate well in the context of the current politically feckless Prince George’s County electorate. Voter turnout and awareness is abysmal during each county election, and the troublesome campaign financing structure that allows groups of candidates to form political “slates” virtually guarantees that incumbents will be reelected each time they run. In fact, Baker and Franklin both are running unopposed in this election, as they did in the Democratic primaries, and many other incumbent council candidates similarly faced little or no opposition. Thus, a vote to extend term limits essentially ensures that county officials will be in place for 12 years.

Likewise, the additional experience argument rings quite hollow. It’s simply preposterous for county officials to suggest that they need two or four years to learn how to do their jobs before they can really start serving the people’s interests. As south county activist Bill Cavitt has eloquently pointed out, “Candidates for county executive and county council ought to have significant experience as citizen activists before running for these offices.” In other words, if it takes a candidate two or more years to learn the ropes, maybe they shouldn’t be running in the first place.

There may well come a time when the elimination of term limits will make sense for Prince George’s County. When that time comes, the effort will be led by the citizens of the county—not by the very politicians that stand to gain directly from the extension. For now, we should just say “No” to Question “J.”