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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
Montgomery County leaders are using the final weeks before the Nov. 3 General Election to drum up support and opposition for questions that will appear on the ballot.
Former County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), former U.S. Rep. Connie Morella (R), nonprofit leader David Blair and Latina tech business owner Carmen Ortiz Larsen banded together to launch their “No on Questions B & D Committee.”
At the committee’s news conference in Silver Spring on Sept. 14, Leggett, who served as county executive for 12 years, spoke out against Question B, which would put an inflexible cap on county property taxes.
The group states this could severely hamper the county from responding to crises such as COVID-19 and sustaining critical services such as education and public safety.
“If we allow this for type of cap, if you wanted in one year to increase that to respond to the demands that we see right now, under this amendment you could not do so,” Leggett said. “That is simply unacceptable.”
Leggett told The Greater Olney News that he is retired — out of politics — and did not expect to get involved.
“But I have grandkids in the county school system and this is too important for me to sit on the sidelines and watch this happen,” he said.
Leggett said the potential for long-term consequences would affect schools, public safety and the county’s credit-worthiness.
“A lot will be impacted and our quality of life in Montgomery County will certainly go down,” he said.
Leggett understands this first-hand, he said, as he led the county through the Great Recession in the late 2000’s.
Robin Ficker, who has launched a campaign to run for governor in 2022, spearheaded Question B, saying the county needs to control spending.
“We had a nine percent property tax increase and we never want another one,” he said at the conference. “It’s not reasonable to raise taxes during a pandemic.”
Questions C and D could cancel out each other
Question D would eliminate the county’s four at-large council seats and replace it with nine individual districts.
A grassroots organization, Nine Districts for MoCo, gathered enough certified signatures on a petition to get its referendum placed on the November ballot.
The organization claims the current structure does not allow for fair and equitable representation on the council for residents living in all areas of the county.
Seven of the council’s current nine members live downcounty, where 30 percent of the county’s 1.1 million residents reside.
The council is comprised of five members elected according to geographic districts in addition to the four at-large seats. Voters can now cast ballots for the geographic district in which they live and for the four at-large members.
Morella, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Montgomery County from 1987 to 2003, urged residents to vote against Question D, which would reduce the number of council members each voter can select from five to one.
“I just think that you take away the ability for voters to also vote for people who know the entire area, and if they know the entire area, you can call on them for your particular need,” she said.
Leggett agrees, saying question D “just doesn’t make logical sense.”
A coalition of leaders formed Residents for More Representation, a ballot committee to oppose nine districts.
Upcounty business leader Marilyn Balcombe of Germantown and East County leader Michelle Graham of Olney are co-chairing the effort in support of Montgomery County Ballot Question C, which would expand the number of council districts from five to seven, while retaining the four at-large seats.
Residents for More Representation also actively oppose Ballot Question D.
“As a resident of Germantown, I know that residents of Montgomery County need more representation, not less,” Balcombe said in a press release. “The county’s population has increased by 50 percent over the last 30 years, which is why we need to expand and modernize our council structure so that it better reflects our incredible growth and brings local government closer to our residents. Question C is the best approach to achieve a shared goal by many in our community. Adding two additional districts will help increase the level of constituent service and protect the important role of our at-large councilmembers.”
Graham added, “We live in an incredibly diverse county of 1.1 million residents and the at-large council members play an important role in reflecting that diversity.”
She said the current council is the most culturally diverse council in the county’s history, and that adding two more council members would increase the number of voices and help increase the diversity of views.
The County Council voted unanimously on Aug. 4 to add the Nine Districts for MoCo referendum to the ballot, assuming enough signatures were certified. The vote was considered a formality.
It will appear as Question D on the ballot.
That same day, the council approved its own charter amendment to be placed on the ballot, which would keep the four at-large council members, but increase the number of district council members to seven.
That will appear on the ballot as Question C.
Voters will have the option of voting “for” or “against” Questions C and D.
However, if both receive a majority vote, the council structure would remain the same.
Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for Election Policy for the Maryland Board of Elections, said that for a ballot question to pass, “it just takes a simple majority of voters for that particular question.”
She, too, said circumstances could force them to cancel out each other.
“If both were to pass, they would become null and void,” she said.
Montgomery County Council spokeswoman Sonya Healy said she consulted with the council legislative attorney, Christine Wellons, who advised, “If the two ballot questions on the size/structure of the council both pass [then] they would cancel each other out because they are contradictory. One would result in nine districts and the other would result in seven districts and four at-large members. It would not be possible to implement both of these measures.”
Another coalition opposes Question B
Yet another coalition, Montgomery Neighbors Against Question B, is chaired by former Montgomery County Board of Education member Jill Ortman-Fouse and Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board Chairman Will Roberts.
The coalition says its members include CASA, Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America, Jews United for Justice, LiUNA, Montgomery County Education Association, MCGEO Local 1994, Progressive Maryland, Progressive Neighbors, Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, Montgomery County Women’s Democratic Club, United Healthcare Workers East 1199, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ and Local 500.
The group’s website states: [I]n addition to threatening schools and the county’s ability to fund emergency services and public health during the pandemic, Question B would almost certainly cause our county’s AAA bond rating to be downgraded. The why is simple. Question B needlessly starves the county of revenue and revokes elected councilmembers’ right to correct for a fiscal imbalance.”
Civic association weighs in
The Sandy Spring Civic Association took an official position on two questions that will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot during its Sept. 14 meeting.
The organization voted to oppose questions B and D and reiterated they “strongly support having at-large members on the County Council.”
No position was taken on questions A or C.
The vote followed a presentation from at-large County Councilman Evan Glass (D), who explained Question C, which is his proposal to amend the County Charter to expand the council to consist of 11 members, rather than the current nine, by increasing the number of council districts from five to seven.
His proposal, approved for the ballot by the County Council, would elect seven council members by district and four at large.
During the Zoom meeting, Glass told the group that Question D, which would divide the county into nine districts and eliminate the at-large seats, “would create a parochial system where communities are pitted against each other” and “would diminish your vote,” as residents now vote for five council members — one in a specific district and four at-large — but would only vote for one under that proposal.
He said Questions A and B, which involve capping property tax revenue, were also important and could “render the county government useless in terms of tax policy.”
“[Question] B would throw it out the door, but A would allow us a little more flexibility,” he said.
The ballot questions
From State Board of Elections official ballot, the questions are as follows:
Question A — Charter Amendment by Act of County Council Property Tax Limit — Limit Tax Rate Increases: Amend Section 305 of the County Charter to prohibit the County Council from adopting a tax rate on real property that exceeds the tax rate on real property approved for the previous year, unless all current Councilmembers vote affirmatively for the increase. This amendment would replace the current property tax limit, which requires an affirmative vote of all current Councilmembers to levy a tax on real property that would produce total revenue that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year plus any increase in the Consumer Price Index. The current property tax limit exempts real property tax revenue derived from: (1) newly constructed property; (2) newly rezoned property; (3) certain property assessed differently under State law; (4) property that has undergone a change in use; and (5) property in a development tax district to provide funding for capital improvements.
Question B — Charter Amendment by Petition Property Tax Limit — Prohibit Override: Amend Section 305 of the County Charter to prohibit the County Council from levying an ad valorem tax on real property that would produce total revenue (not including property tax revenue from certain enumerated sources) that exceeds the total revenue produced by the tax on real property in the preceding fiscal year plus a percentage of the previous year’s real property tax revenues that equals any increase in the Consumer Price Index. Section 305 currently permits the County Council to exceed the limit on real property tax revenue only upon the affirmative vote of all current Councilmembers.
Question C — Charter Amendment by Act of County Council County Council — Increase to 11 Councilmembers: Amend the County Charter to expand the County Council to consist of 11, rather than the current 9, Councilmembers; increase from 5 to 7 the number of Council districts; and elect 7 Councilmembers by district and 4 Councilmembers at large.
Question D — Charter Amendment by Petition County Council — Alter Council Composition to 9 Districts; Amend Sections 102 and 103 of the County Charter to divide the County into 9, rather than the current 5, Council districts; elect all Councilmembers by district, rather than the current 5 by district and 4 at large; and reduce from 5 to 1 the number of Councilmembers each voter can vote for.
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