Late last year, I testified before the Prince George’s County Council about the Greenbelt Sector Plan. During my testimony, my councilmember, Ingrid Turner, watched and listened to me. Several other councilmembers never looked up. They had no reason to do so; they don’t represent me.
In Prince George’s County, each councilmember represents a single district. There are no at-large councilmembers. I happen to live in District 4, which Ms. Turner represents.
I am not a constituent of the other 8 councilmembers, and several of them did not feel the need to pay attention to me as I testified about something related to north County.
Compare that to the structure of the Council in neighboring Montgomery County. Montgomery also has a 9-member council, with 5 district councilmembers and 4 at large. That means 5 councilmembers represent each citizen: the one for their district plus the 4 at-large members. And 5 is a majority on the 9-member board.
A mix of at-large and districts has many benefits
Districts do have an advantage. If all councilmembers were elected at large, they could easily all be from one part of the county. There would be no guarantee of diversity or adequate representation for all parts of the county.
DC also has a mixed system, with 8 wards, 4 at-large members and one chairman at large as well.
All 5 of Arlington’s members are at large, and despite this they end up representing many parts of the county. However, Arlington is a much smaller county in land area — the “geographically smallest self-governing county in the United States,” in fact.
Districts ensure that each part of the county will have a representative on the Council. But it also tends to make a council more parochial. Each member has his or her own little fiefdom that the others leave alone. Districts also give each councilmember less incentive to worry about things that affect only other districts.
Does this system hold Prince George’s back on growth?
Prince George’s County has lagged behind the rest of the region in building transit-oriented development and fostering economic development.
It’s become clear that while Prince George’s has learned to talk about TOD with the right terms, it hasn’t learned that it has to make choices in order to make TOD work.
The Greenbelt Sector Plan, which was just adopted by the Council, is a perfect example. The plan seeks to lay the groundwork for building transit-oriented development at Greenbelt station and transforming the shopping centers at Beltway Plaza and Greenway Center into walkable, mixed-use nodes.
But the plan also calls for widening the roads that go through the middle of those nodes. Widening the roads is not necessary because of traffic that comes from the planned development; rather, they allow for continued development in the suburban and rural parts of the county east of Greenbelt.
Furthermore, the county continues to approve projects like Konterra and Westphalia in the suburbs, which take retail demand away from the urban parts of the county inside the Beltway. One reason that TOD at Greenbelt station has been so difficult to get going is because Konterra has sucked up a lot of the retail demand.
As long as the Council is more interested in making sure that development comes to each district rather than making sure it goes where the infrastructure exists to handle it, the county will not get the TOD it so desperately needs. And any economic development that comes along will be spread inefficiently and unsustainably across the county.
Restructuring the council to include several at-large members would give the council a greater stake at making all of Prince George’s better, rather than just their district.
And it would make each citizen a constituent of a majority of the council. That should make government more responsive, something sorely needed in Prince George’s.