Elected officials, citizens mull term-limit extension

Elected officials, citizens mull Prince George's term limits

As the Nov. 4 general election approaches, Prince George's voters have more to decide than just which politicians to elect.

They'll also be deciding how long those politicians might get to stay in office.

Term limits in the county are again on the ballot this fall, the last in a series of 10 mostly non-controversial charter referenda.

It's the third time in recent years that the issue has been put to a vote: term limits were first imposed in 1992 following a successful citizen-led effort and in 2000, the County Council placed a measure on the ballot to roll back term limits, an effort that was roundly rejected by voters.

This time around, the proposed charter amendment would extend term limits for County Council members and the county executive from two to three consecutive four-year terms.

Prince George's County politicians, including County Executive Rushern Baker III, have largely stood in support of the proposed change, which proponents say would give elected officials more time to see projects through and develop connections on regional boards, such as the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority.

They note that surrounding jurisdictions, such as Montgomery County and Washington, D.C., do not have term limits. Howard County has a three-term limit for council members and a two-term limit for its executive.

"Getting a handle on the budget and your own work right in front of your desk takes a minute," said Donna Crary, a Laurel City Councilwoman and a member of the county's Democratic Central Committee, which voted to endorse the term limit extension after what Crary said was some passionate debate.

Though Crary wouldn't be affected by the measure, she believes it would be good for the county.

Crary said it's better to send experienced people to WMATA and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, a group of 22 local jurisdictions that addresses regional issues.

The ballot measure was proposed after the county's Charter Review Commission, a body appointed every four years to take a new look at the county's charter, recommended extending term limits as an intermediary step to doing away with them altogether. The commission argued the limits put the county at a strategic disadvantage compared to its neighbors.

In July, the County Council voted unanimously to place the term limit question on the ballot.

Councilwoman Mary Lehman, a Democrat who represents Laurel, said at the time that she supported three terms, although she wasn't so sure she wanted to see term limits abolished altogether.

"Eight years does go by fast and I think there's an argument to be made that 12 years would allow more time to address some complex issues like land use, transportation and housing," she said in July. "It's a big, metropolitan region we have here, with a lot of challenges."

However, "I don't want to see people serve 20 and 30 years." Lehman said.

In a county mostly dominated by a single party, the Democrats, opponents of a term limit extension fear politicians, without any serious challengers, could become entrenched in their seats.

Tommi Makila, a citizen activist from Accokeek who has written about the debate on his blog, called term limits "the only avenue to get fresh blood into the system."

Makila, who describes himself as a "proud Democrat" but says he values "good governance" over "blind party loyalty," said he thinks current political practices, such as running on slates and party-line sample ballots, compound the problem.

"If we lose these term limits then we will have long-term incumbents that can't really be defeated for practical purposes," he predicted. "I think that's a really bad deal for us voters."

Crary said she could understand the argument that incumbents have a strong hand. From her perspective, doing away with term limits would rid voters of complacency.

"In P.G. County there's the two-term limit, and it seems like a foregone conclusion that if you're elected to one term you're automatically elected to two," Crary said. "Sometimes you just have to shake your head."

Makila, on the other hand, worries that it will be complacency that could lead voters to abolish term limits.

"I think the current politicians are using this as a referendum on what they're doing and saying we deserve more time," he said. While overall he thinks the county is "going in the right direction," he said he reminds friends who are on the fence about term limits that "even if they think their county councilman or county executive is doing fine, they should keep in mind that it's difficult to get rid of a bad one."

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