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Posted on: February 18, 2013

- SUSIE CURRIE -

BY SUSIE CURRIE — On May 7, the face of Hyattsville city government will change. Four faces, in fact. Perhaps as many as six. For the next council to be more effective, though, they’ll have to bring more to the table than new nameplates.

Every two years, five of the city’s 10 councilmembers are up for re-election. Usually, incumbents run. But this year, for the first time in recent memory, there are more open seats than incumbents, including two in the same ward – another first, apparently.

The seats currently held by Eric Wingard (Ward 1), David Hiles (Ward 2), Matthew McKnight (Ward 3), Carlos Lizanne (Ward 4) and Ruth Ann Frazier (Ward 5) are the ones on the ballot.

Of those, only Wingard and Hiles have [ital]not announced their retirement from city politics.

(Yet.)

Add to that the seat that was abruptly vacated at the end of January by Nicole Hinds-Mofor, Ward 5’s junior representative, and you have four spots wide open and six that are in play.

Since registration runs from February 25 to March 29, it’s anyone’s guess at this point how many names will be on the ballot.

The duties of an elected city councilmember are detailed in the lengthy candidates’ packet, so we don’t need to list them here. But perhaps the most basic one bears repeating: Show up.

Meetings are held most Monday nights, so civic-minded citizens who have or can foresee having a regular schedule conflict might want to consider serving the city in some other way.

The city’s charter sets the bar for attendance pretty low: The mayor and councilmembers must attend more meetings than they miss.

The Hyattsville Patch reported that of the 42 council meetings in 2012, Hinds-Mofor missed 21 and Lizanne, 22. Both had serious health problems.

Other members, too, were absent often enough to raise eyebrows. It’s been a sore spot for months now, with both constituents and colleagues.

“The level of absences has been excessive and unacceptable,” said Ward 2 representative Shani Warner during one of many less-than-full meetings during last year’s budget discussions.

“Collective absences make our job harder.”

Sometimes, it makes the job impossible. One memorable meeting in August 2011 failed to muster a quorum of six. The handful who did show up suddenly had a free Monday evening – including councilmember-elect Eric Wingard, who had been expecting to be sworn in at the beginning of the meeting. (Ironically, Wingard’s own attendance record has been far from perfect since then.)

When the members are there, disagreements regularly erupt over council policies and procedures. Hyattsville is 125 years old; surely some long-ago legislator addressed such questions as how committees are formed, who gets the floor when, what the executive committee does, and when closed sessions are necessary (not just desirable). Could we just have a training session for mayor and council alike on Robert’s Rules of Order, or whatever version of it is supposed to guide Hyattsville City Council meetings? This seems like basic, essential knowledge for all elected officials to have.

Instead, there we were again on February 4, watching what could have been a routine, five- minute approval of planning committee members turn into a drawn-out discussion of the nominating process. It included conflicting memories of longtime councilmembers, dramatic readings from the city charter, and even contemplation of the committee’s philosophical underpinnings: “Does [the planning committee] exist in a Platonic sense?” asked City Attorney Richard Colaresi at one point. “Yes, even without members, because it was created.”

Needless to say, it ended in a stalemate. Again.

Maybe it’s no surprise that there are so many open seats this time around. The question is:

How will things be different when they are filled?

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