Rockville citizens, former officials debate changing charter -- Gazette.Net



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This November, Rockville voters are expected to weigh in on possible changes to the city’s charter, the local equivalent to a constitution that forms the basis for government. The Rockville Community Coalition, a nonpartisan community group, is reaching out far in advance of Voting Day to educate the public about the proposed changes.

The 12-member Charter Review Commission began meeting last summer and presented its final report in December. Among its recommendations were holding city elections every four years instead of every two, changing election years to coincide with presidential elections, expanding the council from four members to six and studying new methods of voting.

John Britton, a former Rockville council member who served on the 2012 Charter Review Commission, spoke in support of adding two members to the city council, for a total of six council members and one mayor. He said Rockville has more people and greater authority than many cities in Maryland, but fewer elected officials to share the workload.

“We have one of the smallest governing bodies among similarly sized municipalities in Maryland,” he said.

Jim Marrinan, a former council member and a member of the 2002 Charter Review Commission, disagreed. He said researchers do not agree on an ideal ratio of citizens to officials.

“Anyone who has served on a committee (knows that as) the committee gets larger and larger, it gets harder to make a timely decision,” he said.

During the debate, speakers presented pros and cons for each of the commission’s recommendations. Some said the current system is working fine as it is. Others said they didn’t know why Rockville hadn’t made some of the recommended changes already.

“I have actually always been surprised at how strongly people support two-year terms,” said Rose Krasnow, a former Rockville mayor, arguing in support of four-year terms.

She said two-year terms distract officials from governing.

“They end up (having) to start running again almost as soon as they are elected,” she said.

Charles Littlefield, a member of the commission who argued in favor of keeping the current two-year terms, said shorter terms “allow citizens to exercise their power more frequently,” making government more responsive and accountable.

Frequent elections also keep citizens’ attention on policy and make leaders wary of implementing irresponsible policies that will be fresh in voters’ minds as they head to the polls, he said.

Susan Hoffmann, a former Rockville mayor and a member of the Charter Review Commission, and Gene Thirolf, a former director at the U.S. Department of Justice, debated changing the city’s election cycle to correspond with the presidential elections.

Hoffman said Rockville could save $50,000 a year and incorporate early voting by having its elections at the same time as the federal government.

She also said the draw of a presidential race could get more people to the polls. Voter turnout for the last city election in Rockville was 16.9 percent, while turnout for the presidential election was 70 percent.

Thirolf, who has run for school board, said a presidential race can distract people from local issues. Better outreach, not a date change, will get people involved in city government, he said.

“You have difficulty getting attention at the same time that presidential debates and all are going on,” Thirolf said.

On some issues they studied, the commission members couldn’t reach a consensus. In response to an audience member’s question, Britton said the commission voted against electing officials by districts in a close vote. The commission did not recommend a change from Rockville’s current at-large elections.

In the resolution establishing the commission, the Mayor and Council agreed to consider the commission’s recommendations and vote on whether to place them on the ballot as advisory referenda. The Mayor and Council may then make changes to the charter by a majority vote.

The Charter Review Commission report is available online at rockvillemd.gov/government/commissions/charter.

ewaibel@gazette.net