Howard's population has grown, but County Council has not

Howard County's population was 62,000 when the five-member County Council was formed more than four decades ago. Now Courtney Watson's Ellicott City/Elkridge district alone holds that many people, and she'd like the citizens commission reviewing the county charter to look at whether it's time that the council grew too.

"I think it should be examined," Watson said. "With 62,000 constituents, it is a big challenge to be able to respond to people in a timely manner." With 700 emails a week coming in, Watson, who also has a full-time private job, and Terry Chaconas, her lone special assistant, have to work hard to keep up. "There's nothing more frustrating," Watson said, "than to have one [email] fall through the cracks."

Watson and Edward Cochran, a former county executive who served on that first County Council in 1969, suggested two more members might be elected countywide to protect against the parochialism that often comes with the district system. Cochran, a Democrat, and 14-year council veteran Charles Feaga, a Republican, are both serving on the charter commission.

Cochran said he sees an expansion with at-large members as an aid to democracy that could give people who don't agree with their council member on a local issue the chance to approach at at-large member with a broader view. "People get trapped into a situation where they feel under-represented," he said.

But Feaga and current Republican Councilman Greg Fox vehemently oppose any at-large council members. "They'd become kingpins," Feaga said. He believes they would be elected from largely Democratic Columbia.

Fox said he sees no need to expand the council. Any move to add at-large members would be "irresponsible," he added, because it would not reduce the size of council districts, which is the main issue, yet would cost more taxpayer money. The only rationale, he said is "an attempt to grab more political power."

Feaga noted that the first council had no aides, and suggested waiting until the next charter review in 2019, just before the next census, to consider a council expansion. Others, including former Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican, said the cost of an expansion is another factor to consider.

Watson countered that the school board is already elected by a nonpartisan, countywide vote, and only one of the seven members lives in Columbia. She said the two at-large council members could also be nonpartisan seats to quell objections.

Howard has 287,085 people, according to last year's census, and although the rate of growth is slowing, the population continues to grow. There's been no public outcry for a larger council, but the county school board grew from five to seven members several years ago, and council size is on a long list of potential issues as the charter commission prepares for public hearings in September.

The commission is advisory, and nothing it recommends will appear on the 2012 election ballot unless four of five council members agree to put it there — or unless 10,000 voters sign petitions, which is unlikely.

Population growth might make enlarging the council seem a routine adjustment, but it's really much more politically complicated than it may seem. More voting members means less power for each individual member's vote. Instead of a three-vote majority out of five deciding an issue, a four-vote majority would be needed on a seven-member body. Republicans are wary of changes that might benefit Democrats, and Democrats are wary of changes that might help Republicans.

Sometimes, it's easier to just add more staff support.

"It's an issue there's no science about," said Donald F. Norris, director of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who lives in Howard. The basic questions that need to be asked aren't complicated, he said.

"Does government work any better" with more than five council members? "Why tinker with it if it's working OK? Does a larger or smaller council improve democracy?"

The answers to those questions are certainly open to interpretation.

Then there's the crazy quilt of systems in other Baltimore-area jurisdictions.

Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties have seven-member councils, but their populations vary widely. Charter review is on Anne Arundel's agenda this year too, but the process has not begun.

Baltimore County now holds 805,000 people, meaning each member represents 115,000 constituents, double the 57,400 ideal for each of Howard's five council districts. If Howard County went to seven members, each member would represent about 41,000 people.

Then consider Baltimore City, which at 621,000 has a smaller population than surrounding Baltimore County but twice as many council members (14), plus a council president who is elected citywide.

Baltimore County adopted charter government in 1956, when the population there was under 490,000, or about 70,000 per district. Harford now has 244,826 overall, while Anne Arundel's population is now 537,656, or about 77,000 per district. Carroll County still has a commissioner form of government, but expanded the body's size from three to five before the last election.

Several current council members and County Executive Ken Ulman said they welcome discussion of any issue.

Ulman said it's "healthy for the charter commission to discuss anything," but he's not advocating a larger council. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said was his view.

"I am open to considering all proposals," said Council Chairman Calvin Ball. "I think the commission should consider council size, constituent growth and other variables which ensure a strong voice from both a district and a countywide perspective." Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel/Savage Democrat, said the idea is worth considering because the volume of issues has increased for council members.

Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, said she feels an expansion may be needed "when we can't do constituent service that needs to be done." She hasn't reached that point yet, though she works virtually full time at her part-time council job. It is tough, she said, trying to attend all the functions she is invited to by constituents.

In the end, though, she's unsure whether the council should grow.

"I honestly don't know," she said.

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