Greater Greater Washington

Some at-large council seats would help Prince George's

Late last year, I testified before the Prince George's County Council about the Greenbelt Sector Plan. During my testimony, my councilmember, Ingrid Turner, watched and listened to me. Several other councilmembers never looked up. They had no reason to do so; they don't represent me.

In Prince George's County, each councilmember represents a single district. There are no at-large councilmembers. I happen to live in District 4, which Ms. Turner represents.

I am not a constituent of the other 8 councilmembers, and several of them did not feel the need to pay attention to me as I testified about something related to north County.

Compare that to the structure of the Council in neighboring Montgomery County. Montgomery also has a 9-member council, with 5 district councilmembers and 4 at large. That means 5 councilmembers represent each citizen: the one for their district plus the 4 at-large members. And 5 is a majority on the 9-member board.

A mix of at-large and districts has many benefits

Districts do have an advantage. If all councilmembers were elected at large, they could easily all be from one part of the county. There would be no guarantee of diversity or adequate representation for all parts of the county.

DC also has a mixed system, with 8 wards, 4 at-large members and one chairman at large as well.

All 5 of Arlington's members are at large, and despite this they end up representing many parts of the county. However, Arlington is a much smaller county in land areathe "geographically smallest self-governing county in the United States," in fact.

Districts ensure that each part of the county will have a representative on the Council. But it also tends to make a council more parochial. Each member has his or her own little fiefdom that the others leave alone. Districts also give each councilmember less incentive to worry about things that affect only other districts.

Does this system hold Prince George's back on growth?

Prince George's County has lagged behind the rest of the region in building transit-oriented development and fostering economic development.

It's become clear that while Prince George's has learned to talk about TOD with the right terms, it hasn't learned that it has to make choices in order to make TOD work.

The Greenbelt Sector Plan, which was just adopted by the Council, is a perfect example. The plan seeks to lay the groundwork for building transit-oriented development at Greenbelt station and transforming the shopping centers at Beltway Plaza and Greenway Center into walkable, mixed-use nodes.

But the plan also calls for widening the roads that go through the middle of those nodes. Widening the roads is not necessary because of traffic that comes from the planned development; rather, they allow for continued development in the suburban and rural parts of the county east of Greenbelt.

Furthermore, the county continues to approve projects like Konterra and Westphalia in the suburbs, which take retail demand away from the urban parts of the county inside the Beltway. One reason that TOD at Greenbelt station has been so difficult to get going is because Konterra has sucked up a lot of the retail demand.

As long as the Council is more interested in making sure that development comes to each district rather than making sure it goes where the infrastructure exists to handle it, the county will not get the TOD it so desperately needs. And any economic development that comes along will be spread inefficiently and unsustainably across the county.

Restructuring the council to include several at-large members would give the council a greater stake at making all of Prince George's better, rather than just their district.

And it would make each citizen a constituent of a majority of the council. That should make government more responsive, something sorely needed in Prince George's.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Planning Department. His views are his own and do not represent the opinion of his employer. 

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The Prince Georges County Council had at large members at first, after adopting the charter in 1972. I think they might have also had a system in which most council members represented specific districts but but were nevertheless elected at large.

I'm not sure why or when the system changed. It might have been related to racial voting patterns. Historically, at large representation was used to prevent racial minorities from getting elected, and PG Co has a long tradition of racial block voting.

by JimT on Mar 7, 2013 2:51 pm • linkreport

Boy, GGW is all about fixing Prince George's County all of a sudden. All this attention is so flattering.
I can't wait to see what's next!

by PG20748 on Mar 7, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

Great post, Matt', and I totally agree. However, I'm confused about your statement that Konterra sucked up the retail demand at Greenbelt. While the county did approve plans to build a "town center" at Konterra, nothing's happened yet, though they've built some light industrial buildings. There may be demand for retail, but until someone (at Konterra or elsewhere) sticks a shovel in the ground or signs a lease, it's still there for the taking.

by dan reed! on Mar 7, 2013 2:53 pm • linkreport

Cue David William, an 11-year old who asked his City Council members if it was polite not to listen to constituents.

http://www.k102.com/pages/news.html?feed=104707&article=11010921

by Jasper on Mar 7, 2013 3:14 pm • linkreport

I've been thinking this for years as well. I like the idea of having a dedicated council member but also having others on the council who can make a push for things with the whole county in mind. It will force the council to think more as a unit as opposed to just the interest of their jurisdiction. I wonder how normal every day citizens can bring this up and push for change, because I'm all for it. My guess is that there will be a lot of push back from council members.

by Donald James on Mar 7, 2013 3:42 pm • linkreport

Great post, Matt, with lots to think about.

How do you balance the possibility of extra representation with the fundraising demands of a countywide race, which may lead to even greater influence of deep pocketed contributors?

by Ronit on Mar 7, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

@Donald James wonder how normal every day citizens can bring this up and push for change...

It would take alot of work, but if you are willing to lose the first time, just carefully draft the amendment to the charter and collect 10,000 valid signatures, present it to the County Executive, and campaign for it.

Collecting signatures is easier than it used to be. Refer to the way the statewide referendum against gerrymandering (which lost) got on the ballot.

by JimT on Mar 7, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport

Right on -- I also testified at that hearing and got zero eye contact from anyone but Ms. Turner.

@Dan -- I think Matt means that the projected development at Konterra has loomed over all other plans for the region, hindering development or redevelopment of closer-in shopping areas. But that's just my hunch.

In my opinion, Prince George's needs to stop concentrating on these huge home-run projects and suburban mega-places, and concentrate on prodding the SHA to rehab "main street" sections into, well main streets, rather than car sewers. Focus on small ball, one block at a time redevelopment for a while -- the overall economic development might be surprising!

Use the Hyattsville arts district model (seems to work as well as any).

by Greenbelt on Mar 7, 2013 4:14 pm • linkreport

Greenbelt -- nothing prevents PG County from making that type of development a priority. Ultimately, doing it doesn't rest on SHA. Baltimore County's Renaissance (and some other program) prioritized streetscape and other improvements to existing town centers. (Balt. County is all unincorporated which might make the process a little easier.) I wouldn't claim that the person who was in charge of this effort was the absolute best commercial district revitalization expert, but the intent is what you're talking about.

- http://ecode360.com/12149383

And Maryland's Smart Growth laws require this kind of development focus anyway.

2. Matt is right that Konterra and National Harbor and similar projects suck up most of the energy, and make very suspect any statements that PGC officials make about "smart growth and transit oriented development."

3. +1 to JimT about doing a campaign for a charter change. 10,000 signatures isn't very much at all.

Probably given the current size of the council, you'd need 6 at-large. 3 each up every 2 years, serving 4 year terms.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

Looking at the long haul, and at both the county council and the school board, I'd argue that while district-based members tend to listen to only their constituents and ignore others, at-large members have tended to listen to nobody rather than everybody. Their constituency becomes so large, and the machine is so powerful, that at-large members don't have to give a d**n about what individual voters think.

District-based representatives tend to show up at community meetings and meet with real people. At-large members tend to ignore community meetings and only meet with and listen to rich and powerful lobbyists and special interests.

Over the past dozen years or so, while PG was changing school board arrangements every few years, I saw and met with elected district-based members from my district and from an adjacent district. During the appointed board years, and the mixed board years, I never saw an appointed or at-large elected member.

Matt Johnson's proposal will almost certainly benefit developers and deep-pocket special interests far more than the real people of the county. I'm surprised that he would suggest such a thing.

by D.C. Russell on Mar 7, 2013 6:36 pm • linkreport

Great post, Matt - and (as I said to you at the GGW gathering on Tuesday) I couldn't agree more with you on this one!

@ Jim - I, too, have often wondered whether a ballot initiative to change the council would be successful. My sense is that it could be easy enough to get the signatures to get it on the ballot, but would the electorate vote for it at the polls? I think there'd have to be a serious messaging campaign to convince our fellow residents that it's better to have some at-large representation on the council.

by Bradley Heard on Mar 7, 2013 9:45 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure adding at-large members alone will help as it's the people sitting in the elected positions who can focus on both their district and the entire county.

Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Fairfax County's supervisory board is elected by district with the exception of the Board Chair. Fairfax County seems to be handling their re/development policy and follow through well.

by Transport. on Mar 8, 2013 12:58 am • linkreport

D.C. Russell does make a good point. In DC, at large members represent everyone and no one... In DC, at large members typically defer to the ward councilmember on land use issues in their ward.

I don't pay enough attention to know how it works in practice in Montgomery County. I do think, like in Arlington, the at large members there take stronger positions on "general" policy especially "smart growth."

Frankly, DC at large members don't take equivalently strong positions on either smart growth or transportation expansion and transit equity.

But in theory, at large members are supposed to be thinking about the big, vision type issues, and less about pothole politics.

Transport. makes an interesting point about Fairfax. It would be good to get more commentary about this.

by Richard Layman on Mar 8, 2013 6:20 am • linkreport

Yes, At-Large Councilmembers are supposed to have the long view and big picture in mind to quell the parochialism of local ANCs and ward Councilmembers.

Part of the problem in DC is that hasn't been the case. It is one of the reasons I am excited about Mr. Grosso and am also watching this current special election carefully.

by William on Mar 8, 2013 6:57 am • linkreport

Although I agree with the need for a responsive Council, I am hesitant in supporting at large seats on the council. It is incredibly expensive for candidates to run credible campaigns in this market. The districts are already too large (100k or so people per district). More seats and smaller districts, maybe? The real fix we need is more effective and responsive representation. I love everyone's comments and vision. Until you guys run for office, we are destined to get the same failed system no matter how the districts look. Let's make some changes in 2014!!!

by Brian Woolfolk on Mar 8, 2013 8:13 am • linkreport

@Bradley Heard: A referendum might not have to win the first time (or ever) to have an impact. Even with a minimal campaign it might elicit better behavior.

I vaguely recall that the Council originally had two at-large members--I may be wrong. Two is not enoough to tilt the balance, but it might be enough to end the cozy practice in which each councilmember has decisionmaking authority over land use within her district. It would also mitigate the occasional practice in which 6 councilmembers can essentially run the county. It is easier to get 6 of 9 than 8 of 11.

Having fewer than 9 districts would be a bad idea. As it is, the council districts are about the size of the districts for the state legislature.

by JimT on Mar 8, 2013 10:13 am • linkreport

Excellent post, Matt. A lot of the lack of comprehensive planning on the part of the Prince George's County Council is due to the fact that none of the councilmembers has any political incentive to think in terms of the whole county. They all have their little fiefdoms and nothing that any constituent says from another district means anything to them.

by Cavan on Mar 8, 2013 10:18 am • linkreport

Yes, but....

An elected legislative post representing a 500 sq. mile county becomes little more than a springboard to the County Executive or State's Attorney jobs. As others note, campaigning across such a large and well-populated space makes candidates ever-more dependent on campaign cash and existing networks (party elites, networks of incumbents, etc). The at-large jobs become a staging area where, over time, those aspiring to higher office become less and less attuned to local concerns and grass roots influence, more and more reliant on insiders, slates, PACs and, yes, monied interests like developers whose projects are uniquely vulnerable to adverse decisions by 'un-beholden' pols.

Such at-large officials also become less and less sensitive to minority concerns. And, ironically (or not), PG officials already tend to run roughshod over minority concerns---minorities like environmentalists, whites, gays and lesbians, atheists, etc., i.e., much of the chattering class that so loves this blog. Witness the plight of Eric Olson.

What's really needed in PG is an attentive, informed electorate which holds their officials accountable through mechanisms not limited to Democratic primaries. Savvy people with values other than self-segregation and the circling of wagons around scoundrels they've elected and re-elected over and over. Sadly, that future is still a long time coming.

by PGreverb on Mar 8, 2013 5:54 pm • linkreport

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