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Two referendums on council structure could cancel out each other –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

Nine Districts for MoCo gathered enough certified signatures on a petition to get its referendum placed on the November ballot, but organizers of the nonpartisan organization say their work is not done because another referendum to change the structure of the County Council — put forth by the council itself – is also on the ballot, and the two referendums could cancel out each other.

If both referendums pass, neither would take effect.

On Aug. 4, Nine Districts for MoCo representatives delivered a petition to the Board of Elections requesting that the County Council be made up of nine members representing nine districts, instead of the current structure of five members representing five districts and four at-large members.

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.

On Aug. 21, the Board of Elections accepted 11,522 of the 16,391 signatures collected, exceeding the 10,000 certified signatures required to place the question on the ballot.

“It feels great,” said Nine Districts for MoCo chairwoman Kimblyn Persaud of Wheaton. “In the middle of a pandemic, people came out in force to support Nine Districts. I couldn’t be prouder of Montgomery County. The people moved heaven and earth to make this happen.”

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.”

Persaud fears that will cause confusion among voters and said that it should not be so complicated that the average person does not understand.

“The average person is working hard to keep a roof over their head and food on their table,” she said. “Not everybody has the time to do the research.”

Persaud added, “The County Council is banking on the confusion; it is very clear in their messaging. We are going to have to work very hard to get our message out to vote for Question D and against Question C.”

Councilman Evan Glass (D-At large) explained that the first County Council was elected in 1970 with all seven members being elected at large. In that arrangement, five of those members were required to live in specific geographic areas, but all were elected by the entire county, he said.

In November 1986, the voters chose to increase the number of council seats from seven to nine. That council structure of five members elected in a district and four elected at-large was enacted in 1990 and is still in place.

“One important element of this arrangement is that residents get to vote for five council members – four at-large and one from the district in which they reside,” Glass said.

Glass called the proposal to elect all nine council members by district “a step backward.”

“Establishing nine districts would create a parochial system in which communities would be directly pitted against each other.” He said. “More importantly, creating nine districts would diminish the voice of every resident by reducing the number of people they can vote for from five to one.”

Glass said he proposed increasing the size of the council by adding two more districts for several reasons: the county population has increased by nearly 50 percent since the last restructure was made in 1990; adding two districts could increase the diversity of the council; and residents could vote for more than one member of the council.

“Even before joining the council, I publicly stated my support for adding two districts, believing it is the best approach to serve Montgomery County’s growing and diverse community,” he said.

County Council President Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3) said his idea of ballot questions is giving voters options.

“Obviously, you can’t have both nine members and 11 members,” he said. “If one or the other passes, that’s the option. If both pass, you can’t have both.”

He added, “Hopefully more people will pay attention to the ballot questions.”

Matt Quinn, president of the Greater Olney Civic Association, said the organization will likely vote to take a position to support one of ballot initiatives against the other, but will also work to educate community members that they should not vote for both.

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