Political Notebook: Longer term limits proposed for County Council

In 1992, Howard County voted to add language to the county charter saying that County Council members could serve no more than three four-year terms.

Twenty years later, council member Calvin Ball, Columbia Democrat, has prefiled a charter amendment that would change the limit for council members from three to four terms. If approved by the council, the proposal will be put on the November ballot and Howard County voters will have the final say.

"The vast majority of Maryland jurisdictions have no term limits," Ball said. "And while I think voters in Howard County have indicated general support for term limits, I think the amount should be reconsidered."

The only chartered Maryland jurisdictions besides Howard that have term limits for council members are Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, both of which have a limit of two terms for their council and county executive, according to Ball's research. Harford and Baltimore counties have a limit of two terms for their county executives but no term limits for council members.

In deciding to propose the change to a four-term limit for Howard, Ball explained: "I thought eight-year increments aligned better with the executive term limits, and given that the county executive job is a full-time job and council member terms are not, 16 (years) seemed like an appropriate starting point."

Ball also said he believes increasing the term limit will inevitably create a more staggered term structure for council members.

No council member who has been elected for their first term since 1992, when term limits were enacted in Howard, has served a full three terms.

The only council member who has been impacted by term limits was Columbia Democrat Vernon Gray, who was first elected in 1982. The language approved for the 1992 charter amendment exempted the terms council members served before 1990 from being counted, so Gray served a total of 20 years from 1982 to 2002.

Gray said he has never supported term limits for legislative bodies, and that Ball's proposal to add a fourth term to the limit is a step in the right direction.

"I always thought that I would let the electorate make that decision as to how long they'd like legislators to stay ... If they were not doing a good job, they would be voted out of office," he said.

Having legislators who serve multiple terms allows them to develop expertise, Gray said.

"And that bodes well for the constituency to have legislators who know and understand the issues," he noted.

West county Republican Charlie Feaga served on the council in 1992 when it considered the charter amendment on term limits. He said he was probably the reason the limit ended up as three terms instead of two because he said he wouldn't vote for the lower option.

"I think 12 years is a respectful time to serve on the council," Feaga explained. "Eight years is certainly not enough."

Feaga said he believes the limit of four terms that Ball is proposing is "a little strong" and that three terms is enough.

"Most council members that serve that length of time start looking for something else anyway," he said.

Council divided

Meanwhile, current council members, who would not declare whether or not they will support Ball's proposal, seem divided on the issue.

"In general, I'm in favor of term limits but I'll have to listen to his rationale," Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson said.

Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Columbia Democrat, said she was against term limits when they were first proposed 20 years ago.

"I think that people voting is the ultimate term limit," she said, noting that having a limit creates an environment in which a politician is not accountable during their final term because they can't run for re-election.

Sigaty added: "I don't think term limits have turned out to be what people had expected. ... It's worth having the conversation again."

Columbia Democrat Jen Terrasa said "there's been discussion about (council term limits) for years, in terms of how that aligns with the county executive's terms." She said it's something that is worth taking a look at with the voters having the ultimate decision.

Fulton Republican Greg Fox said he doesn't understand Ball's rationale for wanting to loosen the limit or align council terms with the county executive's terms.

"I was surprised by it," Fox said. "One has to wonder if there's other reasons behind it. I don't know."

Asked whether he had personal political motivation in pushing for a limit of four terms, Ball said: "I have not made any decisions about the future of my political career. My ultimate intention ... is to give the voters a stronger voice on this issue."

Fox, saying that 16 years is "close to career," said "it's highly, highly unlikely" he will support Ball's charter amendment.

The five council members are all in their second term. Under the existing three-term limit, they could all run in 2014 for a third four-year term.

Other amendments

Also prefiled May 24 were several charter amendments, including one to tweak the signature requirement for a referendum, proposed by the Charter Review Commission. The council has to decide by August which amendments to put on the ballot.

The various charter amendments will be officially introduced as council resolutions on June 4. A public hearing is scheduled for June 18 and a vote scheduled for July 2. All meetings will be held at 7:30 p.m. in the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.

While he filed his own charter amendment this year, Ball questioned Fox last year for filing a charter amendment on eminent domain without consulting the commission.

Asked why he did not broach the term limit topic with the commission, Ball said: "At the time I was serving as chair, so the amendments that I asked for them to evaluate were amendments we as a council agreed for them to consider."

The commission did discuss term limits, but only in the context of whether or not they should exist, commission member Tom Coale said.

"The general sentiment (of the commission), and one that I share, is that we should have term limits, that term limits are good for getting new people involved ... and not getting entrenched career politicians on the council," Coale said.

Regarding Ball's proposal, Coale said: "This is a good discussion for the community to have, particularly because three terms is an interesting number of terms given the county executive is two terms. Either two our four would seem to be the appropriate number of terms (for the council)."

Feaga also served on the charter review commission, as did Alice Giles, who said the group "felt it wasn't the time to bring that (back) into question."

Giles also serves as co-president of the Howard County League of Women Voters, a group that has long taken a stance against having term limits, feeling the voters should decide when a politician has served long enough.

The league has not yet voted on Ball's proposal, Giles said. However, she noted: "Anything that increases the opportunity to serve is something we're generally in favor of."

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