Category Archives: Term limits

Two More Council Members Is Not What We Need

In 2014, once again, Prince George’s County voters rejected a term limit extension for our County Council members. Apparently the desire of current Council members to stay on is very strong, as the County Council is considering to place a referendum item on the November ballot to create two new, at-large Council seats. Information on the proposal can be found in a recent Washington Post article. Resident response to the proposal was not very positive, as is reflected in a Sentinel article about a July 11 public hearing on the matter.

In my view, more Council members is not what we need. My testimony at the July 11 hearing outlines my thoughts on the kind of electoral reform we do need:

Good evening,

My name is Tommi Makila. I live in Accokeek. I am a community activist, past PTA president, and current HOA president, but I am speaking as an individual tonight.

I am strongly opposed to the current proposal to add two at-large members to the Council. Knowing this Council’s history of pushing for extension of term limits, this is another obvious attempt to give some of you additional time on the Council. The self-serving nature of the proposal is so glaring that I don’t need to dwell on the issue. If the Council really feels that there is some merit in creating at-large council seats, those seats should be created by reducing the number of district council seats so as to make the proposal budget neutral.

I can see the reason why you all feel that you deserve more time on the Council. I believe the county has been moving in the right direction over the last few years, and the Council has played a role in these positive developments. I want to thank you all for that.

I even agree with you that our electoral system is holding our county back. However, my diagnosis of our problems differs greatly from yours. From where I am sitting, I don’t think our main problem is that you all only get to serve two terms on the Council. From my perspective, the real problem is that our local, down ballot elections are decided by a small circle of our establishment politicians well before any votes are cast. What I’m talking about are the slates and their sample ballots. You all know how that system works. While I don’t know the electoral history of you all, I am fairly certain that most of you can thank an incumbent slate for your seat on the Council. If you are honest, you should be able to admit that the slate was much more likely to be decisive in the race that first put you on the Council than your superior ideas or skills as a candidate when compared to your rivals. No offense to any of you, but this is the sad reality in our county.

What the system of slates and their sample ballots amounts to is machine politics – machine politics at its worst. The stench of backroom dealing to decide our important local elections is bad for us as a county. We residents suffer when our politicians are more accountable to the political establishment than us voters.

So, instead of spending your time and energy trying to find ways to extend your time on the Council, I urge you all to join the fight to change our culture of machine politics. Instead of fighting for this amendment, launch a campaign to unseat a lackluster legislator or other incumbent politician. Since you are current officeholders, you are the ones with the name recognition and track record to successfully challenge other politicians. And, as you wage future political campaigns, take a pledge not to join establishment slates and sample ballots. Instead, be politicians who are accountable only to the voters – not the political machine. Let’s have some real, exciting and competitive elections! That would be very good for our county.

Thank you for your time.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 5

Many people have expressed concern about the low voter turnout in Maryland elections. In my view, one reason for this is the fact that we have very few competitive races. Often Prince George’s County incumbents get to coast through the primary without any opposition, and due to one-party dominance there is only token Republican opposition in the general election. With such uncompetitive elections, why bother voting? In this year’s general election, I only had two races on my ballot that I consider to be somewhat competitive—the governor’s race and the Board of Education race.

If we extend the term limits for our county officials, we will have even fewer competitive races. That would surely have a negative impact on the already dismal voter turnout.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 4

One of the reasons given for the term limit extension for our county leadership is that our elected officials need more time to fully learn their complicated jobs.

I don’t know about you all, but I think eight years is plenty of time to learn a job, no matter how complicated. If our elected officials need eight years to learn the job, they really aren’t up to the job and clearly did not have enough experience when they got elected.

In short: Our county leadership positions are not for slow learners.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 3

From where I am sitting, it seems clear to me that the underlying message our county leadership is sending to us voters about the term limit extension is this: “We are doing a good job, so we deserve more time in office.”

While I agree that the County Executive and County Council deserve credit for the current positive trajectory in Prince George’s County, this reasoning also leads to the most obvious objection to the term limit extension idea: Without term limits, none of our current county leaders would be in office. In our system of incumbent slates and “sample ballot” advertisements, it is virtually impossible for an incumbent to lose an election. Without term limits, Rushern Baker and Mel Franklin would only be waging hopeless campaigns against long-term incumbents.

Media Coverage on Term Limits

It has been good to see that the term limit extension has been getting some media coverage. Yours truly was interviewed for a Laurel Leader/Baltimore Sun piece this past week. The Gazette ran a while back a similar story  on the topic.

In my view, the most interesting stories have been about the struggle at the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee whether to endorse the term limit extension. The topic was so contentious that it was tabled at the first meeting. In the second meeting,  the Central Committee relented after debate and decided to endorse the term limit extension on the party’s “official” sample ballots.

It will be interesting to see if the sample ballot endorsements will be enough to take the term limit extension over the finish line. Knowing the power of our sample ballots, I am worried.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 2

When politicians propose changes that provide significant benefits to themselves, they often try to convince voters that the proposed changes somehow make the system better. For example, when politicians vote themselves a pay increase, they argue that the raise will help attract qualified candidates. However, such arguments sound hollow if a politician himself or herself benefits from the change. To avoid the appearance of a proposal being self-serving, such changes are often made applicable only to future elected officials—not the politicians making the change.

When it comes to the current proposal to extend term limits for the Prince George’s County Council members and the County Executive, our politicians made no effort to make the change only apply to future Council members and County Executives. Thus, the term limit extension proposal is a blatantly self-serving move.

When I also consider the Council’s recent proposal to give itself—and the County Executive—hefty raises, I’m starting to think one term is all this crop of politicians deserve.

Why Term Limit Extension Is a Bad Idea – Reason 1

The Prince George’s County Council is putting forward a ballot question in the November election to extend the term limits for County Council members and the County Executive from the current two terms to three terms. This is a terrible idea for a multitude of reasons, and I will be posting about those reasons in the coming days and weeks.

My biggest problem with the term limit extension stems from my well-documented concern regarding the undue influence incumbent politicians and party insiders have on our elections. This whole blog was born out my frustration with the Maryland system of “elections.”

In all democratic systems, incumbent politicians have many built-in advantages. That is why it is not easy to beat an incumbent anywhere. However, in Maryland this incumbency protection is nearly bulletproof thanks to our system of candidate slates and “sample ballot” advertisements. As long as an elected official gets along with his/her fellow incumbents well enough to appear on the joint sample ballot, it is nearly impossible for an incumbent to lose in a primary. And, in a one-party county such as Prince George’s, winning the primary guarantees victory in the general election.

When we have this type of extreme incumbency protection built into the system, term limits are the only avenue for getting new blood and new ideas into the political system. If we extend the term limits and eventually get rid of them (as is the stated objective of those pushing for the term limit extension), our system becomes completely closed and dominated by a handful of long-term incumbents.