|Just Say "NO" to Question "J"|
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.”