Howard voters to decide on limiting council terms

November 01, 1992|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

Howard voters will decide Tuesday whether national sentiment for congressional term limitations will trickle down to the County Council.

Carol Arscott, chairwoman of the local Republican Central Committee, thinks Question C, a proposal to limit service on the council to 12 years, will pass with a strong majority. The central committee has unanimously endorsed the proposal.

Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a three-term incumbent Democrat, opposes the move to limit council terms. But like Ms. Arscott, he expects Question C to pass.

"For whatever reason -- an anti-incumbent mood, a fed-up attitude or people somewhat distrustful of politicians -- there seems to be a tide in support of the measure," Mr. Gray said. "It filters down from the national level and sounds like an attractive idea to both Democrats and Republicans."

If approved by the voters, the charter amendment would not force Mr. Gray, D-3rd, or any other sitting council member out of office. At least, not yet. He and the other sitting council members could be returned to office until 2002.

Exempting council members for another 10 years means "people will be voting on a concept," said Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, the chief architect of the term limitation amendment. "By voting for it, you're not going to kick Vernon Gray out of office. You're not going to kick Darrel Drown out of office."

What term limitations will do, Mr. Drown said, is rid government of career politicians.

"Some [elected officials] think their only work is to get re-elected. This says, 'We don't want full-time politicians.' This says, 'We want people to come in, do the job, get out, and return to the real world.' "

The problem with that argument, Mr. Gray says, is that it doesn't apply to the council.

"We already have citizen legislators," Mr. Gray said. "This is not a full-time job, but a part-time job. We have kept the salary at a low level [$27,500 for members, $28,500 for the chairman] so that a person cannot pursue it full time. This amendment is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist."

The League of Women Voters agrees. It has circulated a flier saying that more than half of the 21 people elected to the council since its inception were elected only once, and that the council has had a 40 percent turnover rate in the past three elections.

"A basic assumption with term limits is that voters cannot be trusted to make representative democracy work," the flier says. "The League of Women Voters of Howard County thinks otherwise!"

The league says elections provide the best means of limiting terms, that term limitations restrict voter rights and participation, do not guarantee good legislation, and inhibit accountability.

Quite the contrary, says Mr. Drown.

"Term limitations mean that elected officials are accountable to themselves -- they can really contemplate what's right and not worry about the political consequences. Instead of spending so much time and money getting re-elected, they can spend time on what's best for the county."

Mr. Drown says the fact that things are working fine in Howard without term limitations is, paradoxically, a reason for enacting them.

"Hey, it's working," he says. "Let's institutionalize it" to safeguard against what he sees as problems at the federal level.

Mr. Gray says term limitations could create problems.

"It will enhance the authority and role of staff -- bureaucrats," he said. "We'll be dealing with uninformed council people. It will elevate the role of the executive and diminish the effect of the legislature. The staff will be running things."

This particular term limitation measure is extreme, Mr. Gray says, in that it limits council membership to 12 years, regardless of breaks in service.

The charter already limits the executive to two consecutive terms, but does not bar a former executive from running again after sitting out a term. Only one executive, J. Hugh Nichols, has won re-election to two consecutive terms.

The term limitation measure "prevents voters from keeping someone on the council or bringing someone back who has served them well," Mr. Gray said. "I can only assume that the Republicans are using this to achieve office they cannot achieve otherwise in a contested election."

Ms. Arscott, the local GOP chairwoman, scoffs at such a notion -- especially in light of the Republican landslide locally in the 1990 election when Republicans ousted eight Democratic incumbents.

"If we were looking at the long-term interests of the Republican Party, we would not have unanimously supported this amendment," she said. "We truly believe this is a good government issue."

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