The five Howard County Council members came into office at almost the same time, and if they all choose to run for re-election, the current crop of local legislators will also leave office as a group, thanks to a three-term limit written into the county charter and approved by voters in 1992.
That means a new, inexperienced council would begin work in December 2018 without benefit of any institutional knowledge, as Courtney Watson, Jen Terrasa, Mary Kay Sigaty and Greg Fox did in 2006. Calvin Ball, a Democrat representing east Columbia and Jessup, was an exception, having been appointed to fill a vacant council seat a few months earlier.
Term limits seem a settled issue in Howard County, where the county executive has always been limited to two terms, but a commission is reviewing the county's charter now and if term limits appear on the ballot next year, county voters could change the system. Public hearings will be held in September to gather ideas for charter changes.
The next state and county elections are more than three years off, but council members, County Executive Ken Ulman — who is in the final term of his two-term tenure — and state legislators are all out hustling for campaign dollars. Several council members are privately weighing running for other offices, such as the open county executive seat or for the Maryland General Assembly, which has no term limits.
Jen Terrasa, a Democrat representing the southeastern county, is the latest council example. She attracted more than 160 people to the new Marriott Spring Hill Suites hotel off Snowden River Parkway on June 2, collecting a few thousand dollars to begin building on the $5,410 she reported having in the last state campaign finance reports filed in January. The term limit is the last thing on her mind, though, she said.
"I don't see why that would be a factor" in her decision for 2014, she said between greeting donors at the noisy event. Earlier, she said she likes serving the community, adding "My plan is to run again." She made no public commitment to her supporters, though, simply thanking them for her victory last year and telling them she wants to keep working on programs to benefit youth, transportation, and the redevelopment of U.S. 1.
Sen. James N. Robey, a Democrat, a former county police chief and two-term county executive who also attended Terrasa's event, said he has bad news for anyone thinking he might retire after this term, freeing up his seat.
"Right now my plans are to run again for the Senate," he said.
Ball, who also attended, along with Sigaty and Ulman, said the limit puzzled him. "It's curious to me there would be a 12-year term limit," Ball said, "because it's off cycle," ending for this council after the next county executive's first term.
Sigaty said she intends to run for some office next election, though she hasn't decided which one. "I certainly want to do something. I know I'm not done yet," she said at Terrasa's event. She might run for county executive, for example, she said, adding that she doesn't favor term limits for council members.
Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who may also run for county executive, said she's a fan of term limits, adding that the issue "will have no impact on what I decide to do" in 2014. "It is beneficial to have a system that encourages new people with fresh perspectives, energy and ideas to serve the public."
Greg Fox, the council's only Republican, echoed Watson's sentiments. "Did we survive last time?" with all new members, he asked. In a perfect world, it would be better to have a mix of new and experienced members, he added, but changing members is good for the county, too, he said.
Ulman said jokingly that he loves term limits because without them, he might never have had a chance to get the county's top job away from Robey, who preceded Ulman as executive. Now that he's facing the prospect of giving the job up, he's less of a fan, but Ulman said he thinks three terms is "the right amount" of time for a council member.
"You need to blend new blood, new ideas and energy against institutional knowledge," he said, pointing out that although the current council was virtually all new in 2006, somehow the county keeps going along and making progress."
When term limits for council members were approved by the voters, the oft-mentioned sentiment nationally — voiced mostly by Republicans — was the desire to rid the government of "career politicians." No federal term limit was ever adopted. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who once represented western Howard, was elected to Congress in 1992 on a two-term limit pledge. He's still serving, though, 19 years and 10 terms later.
C. Vernon Gray, a Democratic former council member seen as so politically entrenched and impregnable that no Republican opposed him for a third term in 1990, was the first elected official affected by the 1992 charter change, though he was not forced out of office until a decade later, after spending 20 years as a council member. Even that didn't help county Republicans, since Gray's former seat has been held by Democrats ever since.
Gray opposed term limits then and still does. If not for the law, he would probably have run for a sixth council term, he said. Instead, he ran for the state Senate, losing in 2002 to Republican Sandra B. Schrader. Gray, like current delegate and former County Council member Guy Guzzone, said the voters should decide when and whether to retire an elected official, not an arbitrary time limit.
"The people would make that determination. I don't think you need all new council members," he said. "If everybody's new, I don't think that bodes well for the county."
Guzzone, another potential executive candidate, agreed, but made another point..
"It sounds like an easy, good fix to get rid of somebody you don't like," he said, "but it gives power to the bureaucracy — the people who are there all the time. By the time new elected officials learn how to be effective, they are almost gone, while the top civil servants know they can be around for decades." As a result, elected officials, Guzzone said, "have less and less influence" over government.
Steven Hunt, a citizen member of the current charter review commission who also attended Terrasa's fundraiser, said members have reviewed every section of the charter, making a list of every possible issue, including term limits for council members, though that list will later be cut back. As commission member Sang Oh pointed out at a meeting June 2, only two or three charter changes typically are approved by the County Council to appear on the ballot.
Contemplating an "all-rookie" council in 2018 makes him think perhaps terms should be staggered somehow, Hunt said, but the commission is still a long way from a final report.