By: Suchitra Balachandran. President, West College Park Neighborhood Association.

At the West College Park Civic Association forum on October 16th, the candidates for mayor and council (D-4) in next week’s election were asked if they would support sending all future proposed amendments to the City’s charter to a non-binding or advisory referendum.

While current state statues stop a municipality from sending a proposed charter amendment to a binding referendum (read below for more details), nothing stops a municipal council from sending a proposed charter amendment to a non-binding or advisory referendum and using that information to guide its votes.

So who said what?

YES     Mayoral Candidate: Denise Mitchell

YES     District-4 candidates: Mary Cook, Alan Hew, Dustyn Kujawa and Oscar Gregory

NO      Mayoral Candidate: Patrick Wojahn

A municipality is formed when a group of citizens petition it into existence. The citizens who live within that municipal boundary write the charter, approve it, elect a council and empower that body to govern the municipality using the charter as a guide. The charter is the voice of the people and it should always remain under the control of the people. That is a fundamental pillar of Home Rule. In that respect, College Park’s Municipal Charter is not different from Maryland’s Constitution or Prince George’s County Charter.

In Maryland, any effort to amend the State Constitution must go through two steps. First, it requires the approval of a super-majority of both houses of the General Assembly. Then, it must be approved at a referendum of all the voters in the State. Amending Prince George’s County Charter also requires a two-step process.  It can be initiated either by a majority of the County Council or through a citizen-driven petition. Again, this must be approved at a referendum of the county’s voters (think of the recent effort by the Council to allow for three terms in office).

Unfortunately Maryland State Law does not afford a municipal charter the same protection. As written into law by the Maryland General Assembly in 1955 and not altered since, a vote by a simple majority of a municipal council is sufficient to amend a municipal charter (Section 4-304 of the Local Government Article – codified originally in Article 23 A). That law also prevents (that’s right, prevents) a municipal council from choosing to send a charter amendment to a binding referendum.

At the same time, the General Assembly sets a very high threshold for a citizen-driven petition for a municipal charter amendment: signatures from 20% of registered voters.  Contrast this to 10,000 signatures (2% of the current registered voters) needed to bring a petition to a referendum in Prince George’s County.

It could get even worse in a municipality. Let’s say that residents collect signatures from 20% of the registered voters, petition a charter amendment to a referendum and approve the amendment through a vote. All it would take is a simple majority of the council to reverse that decision at any time without referring the issue to voters.   Consider if this were to happen at the County level and again, take the example of term limits for the Executive and the Council in Prince George’s County. Term limits were brought about through a successful voter-driven referendum and upheld by voters despite several attempts by the Executive and Council to overturn them over the years. Do you think term limits would still be in place if the County Council could simply have reversed that referendum vote?

The combination of the statutes currently in place results in a system that prevents direct citizen oversight over the municipal charter, imposes an onerous burden on democratic initiatives, and allows those initiatives to be over-ridden by the municipal council.  The statistics say it all. In the 157 Maryland municipalities, there have been 421 charter amendments passed by councils in the last five years alone and only five citizen-driven petitions taken to referenda in the past 20 years.

A group of College Park residents brought this to the attention of Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk last Fall and requested her to introduce a bill to change the state statutes. The bill HB682 was simple. It would have permitted (not required) municipal councils to take a proposed charter amendment to a referendum and it would have allowed a municipality to set its own petition threshold anywhere between 5% and 20% of the number of its registered voters. The bill was strongly opposed by the Maryland Municipal League and failed to pass.   The reasons are obvious. When you have power, you don’t want to give it up, however unreasonable that power may be.

It is up to us to determine how much power we are willing to cede to our elected officials and how much we wish to retain with us. Control over the City’s charter should belong to residents, not the Council.

Mayoral and council candidates who have pledged to take all future charter amendments to a non-binding or advisory referendum, are saying that College Park is a truly progressive municipality that values input from its citizens before making fundamental changes to its charter.

So ask your city council candidate if he or she would take this pledge and I’ll update this page as the answers roll in.

And yes, some may tell you there are many “technical” amendments that the council makes and it would be onerous to have to take these to referendum. The best way to deal with technical amendments is to consolidate them and put them on the ballot every two years. It’s that simple.

Let the small stuff not stop us from doing the big stuff.

Responses to Pledge Request

YES    District-1 candidates: Fazlul Kabir, Christine Nagle

[reproduced from College Park Matters ( with permission from the author]