By Lydia Hurley

Residents and College Park’s elected officials are gearing up for the Nov. 5 citywide election.

In addition to electing a new mayor and councilmembers, voters will be able to weigh in on a non-binding advisory question about switching from two-year to four-year terms for elected officials. Councilmember Stuart Adams (District 3) discussed the ballot question, in an interview with the College Park Here & Now.

City code currently mandates an election to fill the mayoral and council seats every two years, with special elections held as necessary to fill vacant seats. The most recent regular election was in November 2021 and brought in the current council and mayor pro tem. Mayor Fazlul Kabir assumed office after the special election in May.

Courtesy of the City of College Park Website.

Adams noted that this year’s ballot question will give voters an opportunity to reconsider how city council elections will be scheduled. Voters will be able to weigh a staggered schedule, which would give councilmembers staggered four-year terms, with one seat in each district open every two years. 

“If the people vote yes, the city won’t actually change things until the council votes on it. The ballot question’s purpose is to gather information,” Adams said.

The Maryland Municipal League, a nonprofit that advocates for residents and municipalities throughout the state, did not respond to the Here & Now’s requests for input about the official ballot language.

Adams also noted that the city included an advisory question on the November 2019 ballot, too. That question also asked residents if they would prefer four-year terms and whether these terms should be staggered. 

Voters’ response to the 2019 question did not support a change, but the city staff is again polling residents to see if opinions have changed since then.

Resident Aubrey Batten weighed in on the matter during the council’s July 18 meeting. “I understand why this proposal is advantageous to candidates and incumbents. Less campaigning is cheaper and easier,” she said. “This is not a compelling argument. I take exception to the assertion by certain councilmembers at last week’s discussion that residents need to be educated about this issue so that we change our minds. Our voice was made clear by the 2019 vote that we prioritize accountability over making it easy to campaign,” she added.

Adams, who is a first-term councilmember, generally supports two-year terms over the suggested four-year staggered terms. “I think with the amount of transient community, we have a lot of new residents every two years, and we should take that into mind,” he said.

“I know that there are quite a few [jurisdictions] that rely on four-year terms. I don’t know the exact number, but my understanding is it’s best practice to have these staggered terms. That’s really important,” said Councilmember Kate Kennedy (District 1), who is not seeking re-election this fall.

Some College Park residents, including Maria Cordone and Judy Blumenthal, strongly oppose having the question on the ballot in the first place.. They also said they see the city as being in a unique position, and that comparisons to other local jurisdictions are irrelevant.

“I think Mayor Pro Tem Mitchell in the July 18 meeting took the lead on saying that the City of College Park is like Rockville. Well, we’re not. Then that became the big comparison. Only the City of College Park houses a global university, a mega university. When you do comparisons like that, the population and environment has to be similar,” Blumenthal said in an interview.

“The question itself should not even be put on the ballot,” Cordone said in an interview. “We have been running elections every two years since the inception of the election process here in 1945. And why are we changing it now? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” she added.

Blumenthal raised concerns about the legality of the ballot question and how a possible change would be implemented, an issue that city attorney Suellen Fergurson raised during the July 18th meeting. Blumenthal was also concerned about what she felt was a lack of transparency, noting that the city had not made the ballot language available to residents prior to the council meeting.

“The ramifications of the question are phenomenal. It was not clear to residents whether it was binding or not. People need to have eyes wide open because this will make a difference in the information they have when they vote and who they vote for,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal also said that polling residents about staggered terms could be overwhelming for election volunteers if the question is not worded well. She noted that city elections are often crowded and understaffed, and said that she sees issues with the organizational setup.

“I would like to see what the residents have to say at the polls. I am very concerned about how the question is worded and I feel that the residents will be confused. I offered a simpler wording, but my colleagues didn’t support it. I feel that four years is a big commitment, and I think that the people of College Park deserve to make choices more frequently,” Councilmember Maria Mackie (District 4) said in an interview.