The Rockville City Council took the first steps on Monday toward creating a panel to review the city’s charter with a focus on the size and terms of the mayor and council members and the timing of city elections.
Mayor Phyllis Marcuccio said she proposed the commission in the spirit of collaboration with the council and the community.
“I have two motivations,” the mayor said. She would like to lengthen mayor and council member terms from two years to four year and to increase the size of the council.
“Both of these things can take place, if the council is interested, without even having a charter commission review,” she said.
Councilwoman Bridget Donnell Newton said she supports convening a commission to look at the length on mayor and council terms. She cautioned against making any suggestions that would prejudice the commission’s recommendations.
“I think it’s better to leave it open and let the commission determine the results,” she said.
Marcuccio, who has pushed for a charter review commission since her first run for mayor in 2009, said she has asked former Rockville Mayor Steven VanGrack to serve as commission chairman.
The commission would comprise up to 12 members. Council members will suggest up to three members each. Nominees will be contacted by the city clerk’s office to determine their interest and availability to serve.
Councilman John Hall said he has already tapped his nominees. Longtime community activist Wilma Bell and two members of the city’s planning commission—Don Hadley and Kate Ostell—have each agreed to serve on the commission, Hall said.
Hall said he does not support either lengthening terms or increasing the number of council members.
“That does not mean that I would not be interested in hearing what our thoughtful community has to say about them,” Hall said.
Councilman Mark Pierzchala said he too is “willing to keep an open mind,” adding that, “I think the two questions you pose will make the task of this charter commission easier than [that of] the last one because they had several more tasks to consider.”
A commission that reported to the City Council in December 2002 considered council term lengths and size as well as other issues, including creating councilmanic districts, allowing resident alien citizens of Rockville to vote in city elections and making referenda binding on the council.
Click on the PDF above to read the city charter.
Hall was a member of the council when the last commission met. Marcuccio served as a member of that commission.
During the citizens’ forum portion of Monday’s meeting, Theresa Defino, a community activist and member of the Rockville Community Coalition, urged the council to put any proposed charter changes to a voter referendum.
“I believe most residents would be aghast to learn that that the council could lengthen terms, add more members, impose district representation and make other sweeping changes with just a 3-2 vote at this dais,” she said.
Defino also cited a minority report from the 2002 commission that argued against moving to four-year terms, as Marcuccio is proposing.
"‘Four-year terms will change the dynamics of balance between the mayor and council and the city manager,’” Defino read from the report. “‘The longer term increases the sense of security for members of the mayor and council and thereby, may influence their participation in the day-to-day running of the city.’"
Marcuccio was one of three commission members to sign on to the minority report, Defino said.
Click on the PDF above to read Defino’s entire testimony in written form.
On Monday, Marcuccio said that when she was appointed to the commission she believed the council should move toward four-year terms.
After months of study as a commission member “it seemed to me that the idea of two years made more sense because you could turn the council around,” she said. “However, I have since been elected to this body … and I can tell you, [two-year terms] doesn’t work.”
The city “is out of tune with the rest of the elected officials around our state, around our county,” Marcuccio said. “We are not able to keep a sense of consistency.
“I think that council members have a better chance of sticking around for a while. But the mayor is the one who gets the fire. And that’s the one that you need to make sure that you have as the best possible individual in place. And I am very much convinced that we should look seriously at that four years.”
Pierzchala said that the council should charge the panel with examining the “focus areas” of term lengths and council size.
“Ancillary questions” such as whether terms should be staggered should be left up to the commission to consider, should it so choose, “as long as they keep the two focus areas,” Pierzchala said.
Pierzchala said he has identified two people to serve on the commission and they have agreed to do so.
“No overlap with Mr. Hall[‘s nominees],” he said.
Councilman Tom Moore said he would like the commission to also consider when the city holds elections.
“They have not always been in the November of odd years. They’ve been in May, they’ve been in other times,” Moore said.
Moore said he would like the commission to consider holding elections in even years, and again consider weekend voting, which, he said “has caught on more” since the last charter review commission met.
Newton said she would “strongly support,” the idea.
City staff has recommended that the commission be appointed in June, meet monthly from July through December (with a month’s recess for August) and deliver an interim report to the council in October and a final report in January.
Moore asked what the council would do about the final recommendations: “Will we have hearings on them ourselves? Will we have a referendum? What is our plan?”
“I would not be comfortable without a referendum on certain questions,” Hall said.
Marcuccio agreed that public hearings and a referendum giving voters a chance to ratify any proposed charter reforms would be reasonable.
“The more participatory this is, the better it will be,” she said.