Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Three Ideas to Reform Council President Selection

By Marc Korman.

Montgomery County’s chattering class has been abuzz over the County Council’s recent election of Nancy Floreen over Roger Berliner as the new Council President, breaking the tradition of a Council Vice President ascending to President. If the chattering class is up in arms enough to push for action, here are three ideas to reform the process for selecting the Council President.

But before we jump into the three alternatives I have a short preface. Adam was undoubtedly right when he wrote, “the voters care about what politicians are doing for them, not about what the politicians are doing for – or to – themselves.” But leadership is important and how smoothly the Council runs will have a lot to do with what the Council can do for County residents. If the Council is spending its time fighting over leadership roles and breaking into factions, they cannot get on with the business of Montgomery County.

That said, the top concern I heard from those who opposed the break in the tradition was that it would generate too much political wrangling among the councilmembers. First, these folks are politicians so I think we can expect political activism regardless of how the Council Presidency is handled. Second, if the Vice President has historically been viewed as a certain path to the presidency, then why has there not been endless political wrangling for that position each year?

But perhaps after forty years it is time to consider some possible changes, an issue I raised in a previous post. Ten of Maryland’s twenty-four counties (including Baltimore) have a council form of government. Eight of them follow the practice in Montgomery County of having the council elect their officers for one year terms, though Baltimore County has only a chair and no vice chair.

Here are three alternative approaches to consider:

1. Put Into Law The Automatic Ascension of the Council Vice President

If the tradition of Council Vice President ascending to Council President is so important, let’s go ahead and put it into the County Charter. As it stands, Article 1, Section 108 of the Charter provides for Officers of the Council and does not even mention the Council Vice President.

If a Charter Amendment is a step too far then the Council can pass a bill. Sec. 2-67 of the County Code, dealing with the election of the Council President and Vice President, can be amended to require the Vice-President become President.

Of course, either reform would have to specify what would happen if a Vice President is no longer serving due to death, incapacitation, or election.

2. Change the Terms of the Officers to Four Years

Every year the Montgomery County Council picks a new President and Vice President. Even if the race for President is usually anti-climactic, there can still be intrigue over who the new Vice President will be. The revolving door of leadership could also mean a lack of stability and mixed up priorities. For example, a Council President, knowing their term is short, may rush a pet issue at the expense of something else.

Montgomery County could consider following Wicomico County’s lead and having the Council pick officers who will serve the full four year term, rather than just one year of the term. Such an arrangement would frontload any politicking to right after the election and provide more stable leadership for the Council as a whole.

3. Make the Council President a Countywide Elected Position

When discussing the recent action over the Council Presidency with the two or three friends I have left who are not absorbed in local politics, I have seen their eyes roll and heard the words “inside baseball.” One way to open the issue of Council leadership up to the people would be to convert one of the four at-large County Council seats to an elected Council President office.

Baltimore City and Harford County already follow this model of making their council leadership a democratic choice of the voters. Both jurisdictions allow their councils to choose their vice president themselves.

Making the Council President an elected office would remove leadership politicking from the Council, provide stability, and make the process more open and democratic.

There are undoubtedly other ideas for reform as well. If there are serious concerns about the Council’s recent action, people should speak up. We can discuss government reform while still working on the economy, transportation, and education.