When voting at next week’s City elections, you’ll be asked a referendum ballot question: Do you want to extend the term of your future elected representatives from the current two years to four years?
Early this year, the City established a Charter Review Commission (CRC) to hear from our residents on the benefits and concerns associated with changing the length of the term for elected officials from two to four years and on the benefits and concerns related to staggering those 4-year terms or having them run concurrently.
The CRC did an incredible job of researching the topic and taking public input, which they put in a report. Please see the report here on the City’s website. While examples can be found across the country with municipalities using both 2- and 4-year terms, I personally believe that keeping the Council term at two years is best for our College Park residents. Below, I’ve explained my positions and tried to address some arguments presented supporting 4-year terms.
Accountability: A 4-year term will make an elected representative less accountable:
A longer Council term means residents get less opportunity to make their Council representatives accountable for the decisions they make at the Council. It’s not rare to find examples of elected representative(s) failing to deliver, making very wrong decisions, or even not responding to constituents’ concerns, thus making the constituents frustrated and helpless. If someone gets elected for four years at an election and does a terrible job in the first year of the term, the constituents will have no option to remove that representative from the office because the College Park’s Charter does not have a recall provision. The constituents will have to live with that representative for the next 3 years of the term.
Engagement: With a 4-year term, both residents and elected representatives will engage less:
Election time is probably the only time when the incumbent candidates get heavily involved with the residents. Only a few residents call or write to their elected representatives. Not many attend community meetings. If the Council term is extended to four years, most of our residents will lose the opportunity to engage the incumbent candidates. Candidates will also lose the opportunity to get the pulse of the community and listen to their concerns more frequently.
Campaign Funding & Difficulty: It doesn’t need to be expensive or hard to run a campaign:
One of the proponents’ arguments of a 4-year term is that running a campaign is difficult and expensive. This may be true for the campaigns in a very large constituency but not for a small town like College Park. Thankfully, College Park is not a very large city like Baltimore. Furthermore, because College Park City Council seats are not “at-large,” Council candidates run among a section of the city residents, not among all city residents. The typical campaign budget of a Council seat is also not that high – only a few hundred dollars on average. On top of that, it’s not that difficult to run a campaign. Most candidates run their own campaigns without any paid staff and a large contingent of volunteers. It’s a very rewarding experience to campaign among the neighbors, something I’ve described my own experience in this post.
Learning Curve: A Councilmember can learn the role quickly:
Another argument the proponent of a 4-year term presents is that by the time a freshman Councilmember knows everything about her or his job, it’s time for that Councilmember to run again. However, the City’s election history tells us otherwise. All elected council members have been involved in some previous positions – in a board, committee, or civic association capacity – in the city before they run for a Council seat. Thus, they have some good exposure to how the city government runs. Their involvement also gives them a perfect opportunity to interact with elected Councilmembers and senior staff even before becoming elected representatives. Once selected, freshman Councilmembers undergo an intensive Council orientation session and one-on-one sessions with the City’s senior staff. Furthermore, from my experience, Council colleagues are beneficial in mentoring fellow Councilmembers to learn and get up to speed quickly.
Continuity: A 2-year council term does not disrupt a council’s direction:
The other argument I’ve seen in support of extending the council term is that a 4-year term could help the continuity of the Council’s operations. Unlike other jurisdictions, College Park’s City Council is a fairly large body. A decision is made on the vote of 8 Councilmembers, and in some cases, the Mayor. The election history of College Park tells us that the turnover of the Council membership is very low, which means that the makeup of the Council terms doesn’t change much from election to election. Furthermore, the City Council works as a team and continues to implement the goals set forth in the Five-Year strategic plan decided by the previous Council and based on the community’s input. Thus, there is very little chance for a new Councilmember to change the direction of the previous Council’s policy radically.
Again, these are my personal opinions. I sincerely hope you’ll vote to keep the Council term to the current 2-year length. That said, if I get re-elected and am asked to vote on this matter during my term, I’ll vote based on the outcome of this referendum question. So, please VOTE!
I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this very important matter. Thank you!