Several College Park residents strongly opposed extending city council terms from two to four years at the first public forum of the Charter Review Commission on Monday.
The city council established the 10-member commission in November. The commission’s task is creating an informal report by soliciting public input on the pros and cons of passing the amendment by May 31. The council initially set exploring longer term limits as a priority more than a year ago, at the annual council retreat in January 2018.
About 15 people attended Monday’s forum, though only seven chose to comment. All of them expressed an opposition to the amendment change.
The city council has functioned perfectly well so far with two year term limits, said District 3 resident David Dorsch.
”I don’t see any need to change this,” Dorsch said. “We’ve been very successful with the ways this government has been set up for the 40-45 years I’ve been here. I think we should leave it exactly where it is.”
Most other residents agreed. Carol Nezzo of District 3 said the shorter terms fostered community engagement.
“We need to look at our culture around us and at what it is that we can do to include people,” Nezzo said. “I believe that two-year elections is the best way.”
David Gray, a District 3 resident, added that he thought concerns about short terms limits leading to a high turnover rate were unfounded.
In the past five city council elections, only five candidates have defeated incumbents, according to data from the city’s website.
“Most people who leave the council leave the council because they don’t want to be on the council anymore,” Gray said. “Conversely, we’ve only had four people represent District 2 for the last 20 years. That’s almost House of Lords-level of longevity.”
On the contrary, Gray expressed concern that longer terms could further discourage new candidates from running.
“City council is freshmen politics, basically — this is where people start their careers. Four-year terms will just scare off people because they can’t make a four-year commitment,” Gray said. “No one has certainty where their lives are going to be in four years, unless they’re really well off or retired.”
Mary Cook, a District 4 resident and former council member, recalled hearing “grumbling” about campaigning and fundraising while in office.
“That was when this idea was first brought up, and there was a lot of mumbling — it’s like, ‘I have to go out and campaign every two years,’” Cook said. “Yeah, that’s what you should do — you should go out and talk to the people every two years, ’cause I honestly have to say, I don’t see my council members in my neighborhood.”
Regarding concerns about new council members experiencing a learning curve, Cook advised candidates to “first get involved in the city, and then you won’t have such a big learning curve.”
“You can catch up,” Cook said.
District 3 resident Carol Poor said it likely wouldn’t make much of a difference economically, since the city will host the same number of elections if terms are staggered.
“As long as we have no term limits, I think the current system is admirable and makes more sense than any option I have heard of yet,” Poor said.
Several residents additionally expressed a desire for a referendum, which the mayor and council could decide to do, though it would only be advisory.
Though the vast majority of the comments during the forum were opposed to the amendment, vice chair Brooks Boliek said during the commission’s meeting afterward that many of the comments submitted online seemed to be more split.
Boliek couldn’t give an exact number of how many online comments were submitted, but said it probably wasn’t more than the number that had showed up to the forum Monday.
The commission set the second mandatory public forum for March 11, at Davis Hall, if available.