Keeping Howard County Council members part-time legislators is a goal most county leaders take for granted, but some worry that that if the county's population continues to swell the size of the five members' districts, the job may become more of a full-time commitment.
The county's Charter Review Commission discussed the best size for the council in a still-growing county at a meeting Wednesday in Ellicott City, along with other potential changes to the charter, which by law must be reviewed once every eight years. The results could end up on the ballot next year.
"The idea is we want to make sure the position is attractive to those who have other careers," said County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, a Democrat, after speaking to the commission at a meeting in the George Howard Building on Wednesday morning. "In Howard County, standards are high. We want to make sure we can provide the level of constituent service that people expect."
Her district, covering Ellicott City and Elkridge, is the largest in the county, with about 62,000 people. The former school board member has said her office gets about 700 constituent emails each week.
That's why she wants the commission to discuss whether the council, which has remained the same size as when it was formed in 1969, should grow, perhaps to seven members. The county's population has grown nearly five-fold since that year, and is now about 287,000 people. That means districts that once held roughly 12,000 people each now include, ideally, around 57,000.
"My one overriding concern is preserving the role of the part-time citizen legislator," Watson told the commission members, including former County Executive Edward Cochran, who served from 1974 to 1978 and is Watson's father. "To me, that is the most important thing."
In private life, Watson is an insurance company executive. Three of the five council members hold private jobs in addition to their council posts.
The commission also agreed to discuss whether the minimum number of signatures required to petition a government action to referendum should change from the 5,000 qualified voters established with the original charter. The charter calls for 5,000 or 5 percent of registered voters, whichever is less. If the minimum requirement were 5 percent, a petition drive would now need nearly 9,000 valid signatures to succeed. In 1970, it took only 1,189 voters' signatures to get a referendum.
The idea of switching to 5 percent was recommended by the last charter commission in 2004, but it did not attract the four County Council votes needed to place it on the ballot.
The 2004 commission rejected the idea of enlarging the council, a move that one current commission member, former 14-year councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican from West Friendship, has said he feels should wait until the next review in 2019.
Watson said expanding the council is not the only way to solve the growing constituent workload, but it is worth discussing, Each council member now has one full-time special assistant for help.
Commission member Michael Davis, a Columbia lawyer, asked if an expanded council should mean expansion to seven smaller individual districts or election of two at-large council members. The district system began in the mid 1980s.
Watson said there are pros and cons to each idea.
"There is a little bit of push and pull of parochialism" in the current district system, she said, and two countywide members would give voters another avenue of contact. Smaller districts, on the other hand, would also allow more direct contact with residents. Later, she agreed that adding a second full-time special assistant for each council member might also work.
Feaga, a farmer, countered that he feels the district system works well and is not too parochial, especially because many council members are contemplating runs for higher, countywide offices. His worry, he said, is domination of the county by Democrats, who now hold a 4-1 edge on the council. Having two at-large members would "destroy districting," he said, and create two political "kingpins." At-large members would likely win seats based on the heavily Democratic votes in Columbia, he said.
"I like Columbia. I do all my shopping there," Feaga said to chuckles. "You'd go back to electing five council members from Columbia," he said. He also brushed off Watson's comparison with the seven-member county-wide elected school board. None of the current board members, who run without any political affiliation, live in Columbia.
"That's apples and oranges," Feaga said. "Columbia votes Democratic. God bless 'em, that's their right."
Steve Hunt, a commission member from North Laurel, agreed that at-large members might be elected by voters in Columbia. "We've always had that concern in North Laurel," he said, noting that the last three council members who represent his community lived in King's Contrivance, Columbia's southernmost village.
Cochran made several counterpoints. "If you're in western Howard County you would be very interested in being able to vote for more than one council district," he said. Most of the more sparsely populated western county is now one council district, represented by Republican Greg Fox.
Similarly, Cochran said, "I would be very concerned if I were a Republican in Columbia," where Democrats dominate. The county had an at-large county council for years, he said "and it worked fine."
On the petition signature issue, Davis pointed out that Howard County has the lowest threshold of signatures in the area. Harford and Montgomery counties require at least 5 percent of registered or active voters to sign, while Prince Georges County requires at least 10,000 valid signatures. Anne Arundel requires 10 percent, or nearly 33,000 signatures.
Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who also attended the meeting, said people should have the right to challenge the council on legislation they don't approve of, but "it needs to be done by a significant portion of the population." The question is whether 5,000 people now represents a significant portion, she added. No petition drives have succeeded in Howard in recent years, mainly because of the state's exacting technical standards for signature validity.
The commission will meet again July 14 and plans three public hearings around the county in September and October before deciding on final recommendations.